Why the world will look very different for women if Roe v. Wade falls

There’s a way of looking at reproductive rights that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. With these rights, women have control over their bodies, yes, but they have something more – standing in our society.

Access to abortion is more than “freedom to choose.” It means parity, in theory, with men. It means having the political equality of a full and free citizen. It’s the Declaration of Independence made manifest.

The status of women depends on the right to privacy. Take that away and you take standing away. In hearing Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the Supreme Court appears ready to rescind privacy so that governments can regulate anything done privately.

With that, the status of women will be degraded. In some cases, it will be gone in all but name. And with that, the court will begin an era closer to the age of disenfranchisement before universal suffrage. As Lisa Needham told me, “women will be second-class citizens.”

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In the interview below, Lisa and I imagine the worst-case scenario. She’s an attorney and contributor to Dame, Rewire News and Balls and Strikes. Lisa is an authority on abortion politics and law.

The future is not bright, she said. “Take care of yourself and your people - think small, think protective and carve out safe spaces.”

Let's imagine Roe is gone. That's not likely, but with this court, it's not impossible. What now? What does the country look like now that women no longer have reproductive freedom?

I think that Robin Marty, who wrote two books about Roe, said it best when, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, said: "I think it's fair to say we're going to see abortion is completely illegal except for the West Coast [...] the Northeast, and then basically Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois and New Mexico." I think that's apt.

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You'll see a patchwork of availability and a massive push to get people to those states for procedures. But states don't have the capacity and abortion funds don't have the money for that to fix the problem.

Put simply, huge swaths of the country will have no access. It always seems over the top to say women will be second-class citizens, but that will absolutely be the case.

What are activists talking about in this worst-case scenario? What can be done with the understanding that no solution is ideal?

I think a lot of activism is organized around that worst-case scenario. Educating people about the possibility of self-managed medication abortions is key. People are working to ensure by-mail access to medication abortion. I think you'll see, again, sort of a patchwork of efforts to ensure remote access in states that get rid of Roe.

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Let's talk about "self-managed medication abortions." You're referring to the pill, correct?


Basically, it refers to obtaining the medication abortion pills directly rather than through a provider in your state.

Walk me through that process. I'm pregnant. I live in Alabama. How do I get the abortion pill? Is it legal to have it shipped to me?

This is where it gets difficult.

Some states are foreclosing even that possibility. Texas passed a law banning the mailing of pills within the state in an attempt to limit access. If you're somewhere that hasn't yet done that, you'd go through a resource like Plan C Pills to see what your options are. That may include a prescriber who is outside the United States writing the scrip and sending it from a pharmacy outside the United States.

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That's a long way of saying whether it is legal will vary by state and that conservative states are going to work to make it illegal to have it shipped to you.

Let's imagine that it’s illegal to ship pills. How is it enforceable?

I'll admit I'm not sure.

Conservative legal scholars have just gleefully said that Texas law trumps, say, the FDA's current stance that abortion pills could be mailed to you. I'm not sure it's that simple. I'm not sure a state can override something the federal government agrees could be shipped over state lines.

Honestly, we're not going to know until someone in a conservative state gets arrested for sending or receiving pills, and then see how a lawsuit plays out.

Are there people talking about the possibility of buying abortion pills, then sending them to those who need them? Technically, that would not be a sale. It would be a gift. I don't know how that would be organized at the scale needed, however.

I've seen informal discussions about that, but I don't know whether there's an organized push to do that at this time. I think it doesn't get around the legal prohibition on mailing, which isn't the same as a prohibition on purchasing. I think, as you said, the problem there is scaling up. People can do that for a few people each, not for hundreds at a time.

What would happen if the Congress codified Roe? Would it hold up with this court?

I don't think so.

This court is pretty committed not just to getting rid of abortion, but undermining the entire basis for that right – the right to privacy.

They're not fans of the idea that the right to privacy is something that the court saw as emanating from several rights in the constitution, rather than a specific amendment to the constitution.

With that, it's easy for them to just say there's no constitutional right of privacy, period, and that gets rid of anything based on that right. I also think this court will invoke a sort of states' rights argument and say the Congress can't overrule/undermine state-level restrictions.

Can you explain to normal people what state governments can do to people in the absence of a federal right to privacy? I don't think normal people understand the breadth of what's at stake.

States have shown they don't need that right gone to radically restrict abortion. That said, I think if you dismantle the right to privacy, you dismantle an entire line of case law.

Theoretically, you could outlaw birth control, as birth control is predicated on that right to privacy. You could toss out same-sex marriage. A lot of the progress that has been made that has expanded freedom for women and LGBTQ people could be gone, and there's definitely a sector of anti-choice activists who have made very clear that's the endgame here – weird conservative religious theocracy in any state where they can get those laws passed.

But it could go further than that. Pornography would be outlawed. Certain books could be outlawed. "Sodomy." Perhaps even forms of worship. Anything done in private. Am I exaggerating?

You are not at all exaggerating.

These were outlawed before. Laws against same-sex sodomy were only struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003 – not even 20 years ago. Conservative states and conservative judges are itching to get back to a place where it would be fine to ban that sort of thing.

We're already seeing books by Black writers being suppressed under the pretext of preventing white children from feeling guilty.

Absolutely – I think it's all of a piece.

Restricting access to Black writers is all tied up in the notion that conservatives should have control over what people read, say and do – which is the real heart of the anti-choice movement too.

What do you say to people who say: Nah, it'll never happen?

I wrote a piece for Balls and Strikes where I looked at all the amicus briefs in the Mississippi abortion case at the Supreme Court right now (Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization). The architects of the Texas law (SB 8) have already put in writing that they're coming for same-sex marriage next.

I'd basically say: Look at Texas.

Look at the anti-CRT bills that are getting passed everywhere. It's coming, honestly.

The capture of institutions by conservatives is distressingly complete in a lot of states.

The court seems to be interested in another angle, which is dismantling administrative power. For instance, say the FDA were the prevail over state laws banning the abortion pill, the court is in the process of dismantling the government's ability to function.


I wrote a piece for Balls and Strikes where we called it a "slow-motion assault on modern government." There's a huge conservative appetite to dismantle the administrative state. Steve Bannon has made it a cornerstone of his rhetoric.

This would return power to the Congress, which is basically incapable of passing major legislation, which just leaves you with nothing.

No enforcement mechanisms for, say, health and safety laws. No real climate change measures. Just mob rule from a gerrymandered Congress – but a weird non-functioning mob rule that relies on nothing getting done.

OK, what can normal people do?

I admit lots of activists are more hopeful about what normal people can do than I am these days. Honestly, what I'd say is people should push to get into local roles – school boards, city councils, state government.

Those roles are so much less flashy than congressional or presidential politics, but that's where things are playing out, and if you can block the anti-CRT person from getting on the school board or stop a conservative city council from passing a law that bars abortion clinics within the city limits, you're making real change.

I guess I'd say the best thing you can do is take care of yourself and your people - think small, think protective and carve out safe spaces.

The line connecting Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump runs through Dixie

Today we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There are many obvious reasons to raise up his name in tribute and praise. But there’s another less obvious reason – the civil rights leader understood southern politics.

Much of our discourse treats southern politics as if it were just another regional bloc. Or the region and its history are whitewashed in ways similar to slavery being whitewashed from US history. I think King knew better. If you don’t understand southern politics, you don’t understand politics, period.

I’m not a scholar, but I lived in the south for nearly a decade. I was a reporter and editor at small newspapers. I’m here to tell you, things are different.

Speaking truthfully is not a civic virtue. Free speech is not valued. The common good is not recognized. There is no such thing as “the public.” Equality is paid lip service. The rights of property are unquestioned.

Meanwhile, conformity is enforced, gender roles policed, the racial hierarchy maintained unto death. To call southern politics the politics of a rightwing authoritarian collective is not too much. Everything is us against them. We talk about fascism as if it’s modern. The American sort goes back to 1619.

In a very real sense, the white south is like a mini-Russia – one-party control, endemic corruption, no concern for governance and constant appeals to the very worst in humanity for the sake of restricting liberty to the master race. The line connecting Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump runs through Dixie.

If this sounds unkind, consider this. Southern politics, by which I mean white southern politics, is what gave motivation and rationale to the J6 insurgents. They were not betraying the country. They were not committing acts of treason. They were instead defending “real Americans” from “tyranny.”

Let’s turn now to an authority, Angie Maxwell. She’s a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and director of its Center of Southern Politics and Society. Her latest book, with Todd Shields, is The Long Southern Strategy. She explained that entertainment, not governing, is the thing in the south.

What about southern politics is vital to understanding American democracy that most people don't know about, including southerners?

Prior to the publication of VO Key, Jr's landmark study, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), most research in American politics (not historians) focused primarily on the non-South. The very short introduction to Key's enormous book still reveals some of the most shrewd insights about the region.

Specifically, Key claims that because of one-party politics, the South has no real political system capable of solving its very real problems. In a one-party political system, politics becomes a "drole facade" – a politics of entertainment as opposed to a contest of ideas.

There is little oversight or restraint. Politicians who are cult of personalities are successful. Political rallies are tent revival-like sources of entertainment.

When the South was in the process of realigning from Democratic dominance to Republican dominance, observers and scholars thought the region was purple and competitive. The party labels were but the ideologies were not.

The one-party dominance still exists in most of the southern states. It's just the GOP in control instead of the Democratic Party. So in many southern states there is no opposition party infrastructure.

There is scant participation in parties by the public. Little oversight is still the norm. Most of the substantive changes have been the result of federal laws and requirements or Supreme Court rulings.

This is important, because it shows why Georgia specifically has moved the needle and become so competitive.

Democratic workers there have invested in infrastructure and community organizing. It doesn't matter how talented a Democratic candidate may be, without the grassroots network and public buy-in to the party, they will not be successful.

Another thing that many people may not realize is how important the South is for the national Democratic Party.

Most southern states go red, of course. Although Obama won three southern states, he could have lost them and still reached the magic number for an Electoral College victory. So many folks don't see the importance of the South for the Democratic Party.

However, the South still has a significant number of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Since many southern states moved their primaries up in the calendar – remember the moniker "SEC primary" – and since they often vote similarly in those primaries, they have an enormous impact on momentum in a crowded Democratic Party field.

Candidates who know that and invest in the South are often successful there, though it can seem like a waste of resources for winning votes in the general.

In terms of the Republican primaries, we all know the South is crucial, but I don't know if we realize the extent. Because most of the Republican primaries are winner-take-most if not winner-take-all, and because the RNC awards bonus delegates to states that went red in the general in the last election cycle, the South has a disproportionate effect on who gets the RNC nomination. I wrote a piece about it last January.

Something many people do not know is how limited our research on southern politics is – particularly over time research. The ANES (American National Election Surveys) at University of Michigan is the gold standard in our over time data on American politics. Their national surveys have been running consistently since 1952.

However, in most years, their southern samples in those surveys are very, very small. That isn't their fault. They are taking a national snapshot.

However, since the region has been so dominated by one-party politics, political behavior and attitudes operate differently. And that is rarely captured.

That is why the center I run, and upon which my research is based, oversamples the South so that we can compare the region to the rest of the country and see where it is distinct and where it is not.

Are you able to generalize the political values of one-party southern politics?

For the dominant party, symbolic politics is key, as opposed to governing. There isn't a real threat to losing power or control, so catering to the base is everything, as is party loyalty and party allegiance.

The fear is always being primaried in your own party, not losing in a general. Compromise isn't necessary, so it's about jockeying for recognition within the party.

For the party in opposition, where one party dominates, it has to be about compromise and political pragmatism.

For example, the reason Bernie Sanders did not fare well in the South in the 2020 Democratic primaries is not necessarily because southern Democrats think Medicare for all is a bad idea. It just seems like a pipe dream. It seems so far from their lived reality in a state dominated by a politics of privatization. Many southern states never expanded Medicaid, and in the ones that did, it was a huge battle.

Many people don't realize what an uphill battle it is in most southern states to reach real two-party competition. That's why it was amazing to see Georgia, North Carolina and Texas too close to call on election night 2020. Just being at that place represents decades of work.

This is also why the gutting of the Voting Rights Act (as a result of the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder) is so devastating in the South. Folks may look at a state like Arkansas, for example, and say well they have four GOP Congressman now, and they will likely have four after 2022. What's the big impact of redistricting post-Shelby County?

What they don't see is all the years of work that made an African-American woman and state Senator Joyce Elliot, a serious contender in 2020 in the 2nd district (Little Rock). But now Little Rock has been split into three separate congressional districts, undoing all of those decades of organizing.

The South is overly influential in selecting the GOP's presidential nominee. The South is critical to any GOP victory in the general. The influence of the South in the selection of the Democratic Party's presidential nominee is underestimated.

The long history of one-party politics in the South has created real structural barriers to progress and change. For the party in opposition, it takes decades of work to become competitive again, and a great deal of that could be wiped away without a restoration of the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

For Republicans, politics is symbolic. For Democratic, it's about pragmatism. That sounds a lot like our national politics. Has American politics been "southernized"?

Yes. American politics has become southernized in that the majority of states are under one party rule, as opposed to divided government.

The longer that persists and the more extreme the gap in partisan power, the more likely non-southern states will encounter the same structural problems that have plagued the South.

In terms of parties, the Republicans nationalized southern white identity in an effort to turn the South red — The Long Southern Strategy — and that rebranded conservatism in a southern white image.

Scoring high on scales that measure racial resentment, modern sexism or Christian nationals accounted for 95 percent of Trump’s white vote.

In terms of Democrats, Democrats outside of the South tend to resemble Democrats in southern states where Republicans dominate, leaving Democrats little recourse but to be pragmatic and compromising – because they have no other choice.

Democrats in strong blue states operate in a very different environment.

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Police sergeant flips out on 'goose steppers' after restaurant calls the cops on her www.youtube.com

'This is absurd': A legal expert unpacks the hidden agenda behind the Supreme Court's 'pernicious' decision ​

Normal people don’t pay much attention to the United States Supreme Court. I don’t know why. Here’s nine people who tell us what the law is. They tell us what the law is even if their reasoning for it is trash.

Such is the case with the court’s latest ruling. The six Republican justices could have said to themselves, “Gee, the pandemic is bad. It’s killing a lot of people. Maybe we shouldn’t second guess the people who know what they’re talking about when it comes to public health.”


The court instead decided to second guess the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The White House had tried to implement the president’s vaccine-or-test mandate via OSHA’s statutory authority to regulate workplace safety. The mandate would have affected employers with over 100 workers, or about 100 million people.

The Republicans justices make-believed they were public health experts. The covid, though it continues to rage through the workplace, isn’t an occupational hazard, they said. Why? It exists, like other hazards in life, outside the workplace. Therefore, OSHA doesn’t have the statutory authority the Biden administration says it has.

This is stupid, according to Josh Chafetz, professor of law at Georgetown and author of Congress’s Constitution: Legislative Authority and the Separation of Powers. (“Stupid” wasn’t his word, though.) Air exists outside the workplace. So does water. Yet OSHA regulates them. This is what happens when justices make-believe.

It gets worse.

The justices said they were restoring power to Congress, but Josh said nuh-uh. That’s bad faith. What they are really trying to do is dismantle the administrative state. To do that, Republican justices invented out of thin air something called the “major questions doctrine.”

It’s complicated. Josh explained in our chat. The long and short of it, though, is that the court’s Republicans figured out a way to tear down what they don’t like while never appearing to have torn down anything.

The result is a court that’s okie-dokie with mass death while being hostile toward a government trying to prevent more mass death.

The ruling was about the authority of OSHA. Why did the conservatives say it does not have authority over workplace safety?

Their opinion basically hinged on two reasons – one absurd and one pernicious. The absurd one is best summed up in this sentence from the opinion: "Although COVID–19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather."

In other words, the majority said that OSHA is designed to regulate things that are unique to workplaces, and since Covid exists everywhere in society, it isn't unique to workplaces.

This is absurd for a couple of reasons.

First, it's not anywhere in the statutory language. The statute gives OSHA the authority to set "occupational safety and health standards." It doesn't say that the dangers against which OSHA can protect have to exist only in occupational environments – it simply says that OSHA can regulate them when they exist in such environments.

And that brings us to the second reason, that it's absurd: Lots of stuff OSHA regulates exists outside of workplaces. OSHA can regulate for workplace fire safety, even though fires burn down houses and churches and other places, too. OSHA can regulate for workplace air quality, even though air pollution exists on the streets, too.

The second, pernicious basis of the opinion is what is called the "major questions doctrine" in administrative law.

Under most circumstances, when an agency regulates pursuant to statutory authorization, the courts will defer to that agency's understanding of the law, so long as that understanding is reasonable. (This is called "Chevron deference," named for a 1984 case.)

The "major questions doctrine" is a carveout to this regime that basically says, "We won't defer to agencies when the agency has taken it upon itself to decide a 'major question.'"

This is pernicious because what counts as a "major question" is entirely in the eye of the observer, and is a post-hoc determination made by the court.

Which means that, although the Court claims the “major questions doctrine" is Congress-empowering, it just empowers the justices who decide in the moment whether they think a particular question is "major" or not. So, here, they decide that the vaccinate-or-test mandate is "major" and therefore that OSHA gets no deference.

So they say they are respecting Congress but not really?

Exactly. They say this is all about returning power to Congress. (In effect, they're saying, “Surely if Congress meant to allow the agency to address such a major question, it would have said so explicitly in statutory text.”)

But Congress had no way of knowing when it wrote the statute (a) precisely what issues would arise or (b) whether the justices would decide those issues were "major" (and therefore outside the normal deference regime) or not.

So this isn't actually about respecting Congress's wishes – after all, Congress chose to write broad language against the backdrop of a generally applicable deference regime.

Instead, it's about the Republican justices inventing a new doctrine that allows them to impose deregulatory outcomes whenever they want to under the flag of empowering Congress.

Clarence Thomas seemed to underscore this point. He said Congress did not “expressly authorize" vaccine requirements. The thinking here seems to be that if Congress does not write laws in granular detail, no agency has any authority. Am I onto something?

That's Thomas writing in dissent in the other case, the one about healthcare workers specifically. He says that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services don’t specifically have that authority. That ties into a deep anti-administrativism that runs throughout Thomas's jurisprudence, and increasingly in that of many of his colleagues as well.

This would also require Congress to be as nimble, informed and experienced about, say, public health policy as the public servants whose job is public health policy. That seems absurd.

Indeed! Again, what looks like deference to Congress is in fact cover for a deregulatory regime, because these judges know full well that this is not how legislatures are set up to work in the modern world.

Deregulation with the outcome being increased profits is one thing. Deregulation with the outcome being mass death is another. Before this pandemic is over, 1 million Americans will be dead.

Yep. And the Republican justices just made the policy choice to allow many more to die.

This goes back to the subjectivity of what counts as a "major question."

To my mind, getting vaccinated is a minor inconvenience at most. Getting tested is also a minor inconvenience. Getting to choose whether to be vaccinated or tested weekly is even more minor.

But the majority describes them as "major," so suddenly they're overturning OSHA's decision and creating a situation that will kill more people.

Can we say in fairness that some of the justices are giving credence to anti-vax views?

Yes, I think that's fair. They're all vaccinated and boosted, of course, as are so many elites of all types who are playing footsie with anti-vaxxers.

But they're definitely giving support to the anti-vax movement with both the decision and also with some of the language.

I'll also note that they describe it as a vaccine mandate, rather than a vaccine-or-test mandate, which is telling.

So this doesn't end with covid vaccines.

Definitely not.

The broadening of the major questions doctrine means a lot of environmental regulations are probably in trouble, as are just about any other regulations that the Republicans on the Court don't like.

That's what's so pernicious -- they can describe just about anything as "major" and then use that as a reason to deny deference, which in practice means gutting the regulation.

What is the ideal deregulatory scheme for these people? A federal government with no authority to provide for the general welfare?

Well, Thomas, at one extreme, has repeatedly expressed nostalgia for the "Lochner era," the period between the mid-1890s and 1937 when the Court frequently struck down both state and federal health, safety, and welfare laws.

I think some of his Republican colleagues don't want to go that far, but they do want to radically pare back the administrative state, which would have a significant deregulatory effect.

But what’s the threshold between too little and too much?

I'm not sure they have that fine-grained a view, and of course their ability to calibrate is limited by some of the constraints of the judicial role.

But the majority today definitely thinks that there is too much federal regulation generally, and it is using a lot of different sorts of mechanisms to pare it back across the board.

This is bad for democracy.

I agree. And, again, what makes it even more frustrating is that they claim to be doing it in the service of empowering representative institutions.

Josh, our hour is up. Many thanks for your time, consideration and caring.

My pleasure! It was fun!

'To defy Trump's wishes is to defy God's plan': The scary truth about modern right-wing misinformation

Death threats will change a person. During previous testimony before a Senate panel, the nation’s top infectious disease expert was calm and deferential. This week marked a break from the past. Enough is enough, apparently. Dr. Anthony Fauci was no longer in the mood.

Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas kept pressing the question of financial disclosures, implying that Fauci was benefiting from the effort to vaccinate the country against the covid pandemic.

Fauci, as head of the White House pandemic response, is a public servant. By law, he must disclose financial information. So of course he didn’t understand Marshall’s question, because his “financial disclosure is public knowledge” and has been for more than three decades.

Two things. Marshall knew this and was pretending not to or he didn’t know this, which should be embarrassing for a sitting senator. Either way, Marshall said his staff could not find the document. Well, it’s here. Ultimately, he was pandering to believers of rightwing misinformation.

After a heated exchange in which Marshall kept insisting Fauci was hiding something and Fauci kept insisting he’s not – “all you have to do is ask” for the disclosure – Fauci said, “What a moron! Jesus Christ!” (He said this to himself, obviously, not realizing his mic was still on.)

Is Fauci showing us how to handle rightwingers? That’s what I asked Sara Aniano on Wednesday. She’s a Monmouth University graduate student studying rightwing rhetoric and conspiracy theories on social media. She co-authored a new report for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology analyzing QAnon trends a year after J6.

She said Fauci’s pushback felt good, but in the end, it probably doesn’t help. “The reality is pretty dire,” she said. Propaganda, conspiracy theory and misinformation have “already infected the population.” It’s too late even for the Washington press corps to do much about it.

The way Anthony Fauci talked to the Republicans is how everyone should talk to rightwing extremists. Am I on to something?

Absolutely. For a lot of people on the left, Fauci's pushback was refreshing. People are tired of the pandering, and of watching misinformation be lumped into the category of “free speech.”

While Fauci’s “moron” comment was indeed a great moment of transparency, we should also consider his ability to humanize the situation with the anecdote about his own harassment.

The left is often considered "soft” in contrast with the alleged "hard truth" attitude of the GOP. While Fauci's position is not about partisanship, anti-vaxx movements have unfortunately aligned with the right and the far-right. So it feels like Fauci is speaking for us, even though he's really speaking on behalf of everyone.

It seems to me speaking for everyone is often interpreted as soft. In other words, acting for the benefit of the common good immediately marks you as an enemy by rightwingers.

For a party that increasingly demonizes collectivism, it's in their best interest to continue promoting "individual responsibility,” as it works for their messaging politically. But for the extreme far-right, it's more sinister. In their minds, there is a war going on between good and evil. And if you're not on their side, their black-and-white thinking places you into the "enemy" category.

The irony is that they are actually collectivists, too, no?

I hear that a lot. In comparison to other countries, America is not a collectivist culture. In my opinion, anyone who pushes extreme nationalism here is also pushing extreme individualism.

As a leftist researcher of far-right misinformation, I admit to a certain level of bias. But January 6 marked a clear turning point in how we view partisanship, I think, and we can't discard that.

Why is it a turning point? We turned from what to what?

For a lot of us studying far-right extremism and misinformation, we couldn't help but feel this collective "we told you so" when January 6 happened. For the first time, we had a visual manifestation of far-right conspiracism that wasn't limited to social media or fringe news programs. In other words, everyone saw people act on the ideologies that misinformation researchers sift through every day.

Of course, how people interpret what they saw is what's shaping their opinion now.

Which is where misinformation comes back, right?

Here's something I tweeted on the anniversary of the insurrection: “By the end of January 6, 2021, Americans were left with the most damaging relic of all: Yet another unfathomable event, born of hate and delusion, for far-right conspiracy theorists to contort into a self-serving narrative that unfairly demonizes the innocent.”

I want to cry.

A lot of us can relate to that.

To what extent is anti-vaccination about purity of blood? To what extent is anti-vaccination cover for plain old white supremacy?

It's interesting, because even if anti-vaxxers don't realize it, the "pure blood" characterization of the unvaccinated has roots to eugenics, which of course has roots to white supremacy.

But to go back to the idea of "infiltration," I think vaccine skepticism ties into that too.

Please go on.

I've been thinking about what types of infiltration the far-right finds most threatening. So far I've come up with three categories: 1) member infiltration, 2) spiritual infiltration and 3) bodily infiltration.

Member infiltration seems to stem from a fear of the "other" hiding in plain sight, trying to live among them but with heinous intentions. We see that a lot with paranoia about Antifa, the feds, Jews or journalists "posing" as patriots.

Spiritual infiltration has a lot to do with "demonic forces" among us. Satanic panic stuff. With QAnon, we see allegations of Satanic rituals in Hollywood or even reptilians wearing skinsuits to pass as humans.

Physical infiltration is a lot about co-opting "my body my choice" messaging to push back against the vaccine, which many think is the mark of the beast or a 5G transmitter or radioactive or a microchip. A lot of crossover with pseudo-science.

There is so much overlap that it's hard to make exclusive categories, but you get the idea.

We haven't talked about religion. What does your research say?

Yes, religion or spirituality is inextricable from far-right narratives overall. My thesis, currently in progress, focuses on QAnon Instagram comments in the week leading up to J6.

Rhetoric that pushes a higher power is always mixed in with far-right narratives, and overwhelmingly, that's Christianity. A lot of people who believe election fraud theories in QAnon circles genuinely think that Donald Trump was anointed by God – he is the chosen leader to usher in "the storm" and defeat the evil Democrats, once and for all.

In their minds, to defy Trump's wishes is to defy God's plan. I wouldn't say that this is ubiquitous across the right, to be clear. That's a pretty extreme version. But religion presents itself across far-right rhetoric in general, even when it doesn't involve Donald Trump.

Trump abruptly hung up on Steve Inskeep after the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” challenged him repeatedly on the big lie? Are such challenges what a democratic republic needs?

I think Inskeep did a great job, although many were upset with NPR for bringing Trump on in the first place. Your question is a hard one. People asked the same thing during and after the 2020 election when Trump alleged fraud on TV before the ballot counting was even complete. Some networks cut his speech off, while others aired it.

Any time we platform misinformation, especially when we can see it coming, we must provide context and a good reason for showcasing it. If we can shut it down in the meantime, then yes, we should.

But if I'm being honest, I think that ship has sailed.

I don't know if it matters anymore if we cut off conspiratorial rhetoric from Trump and others when it's already infected the population.

Are you suggesting the press can’t really mitigate the spread?

Once Trump normalized discourse that was hateful, xenophobic, conspiratorial and sexist, he made it more mainstream. People who previously self-censored those thoughts felt free to not only think them, but say them – particularly on social media, where anonymity removes accountability. That hasn't really changed.

I guess my point is – the press should do what it can to mitigate misinformation, of course, but the reality is pretty dire.

There's a serious epistemological crisis going on, and that's gonna require systemic change.

Again, I want to cry.

A new book proves right-wing politics caused mass injury and death

The Republicans are sabotaging the country’s full recovery from the covid pandemic. They don’t think so, though. They think they are standing up for individual liberty and citizen autonomy. What does sabotage have to do with defending our constitutional rights?

Not surprising.

To see sabotage, as I do, you have to believe there’s such a thing as society. You have to believe there’s such a thing as “the public.” You have to believe there’s such a thing as “the common good.” If you don’t believe these things exist, then sabotage has nothing to do with it.

Of course, these things do exist. Ergo, the Republicans are sabotaging the nation – our political community. They’re not only falling down on the job. They’re falling down on purpose, forcing the rest of us to drag them along, thus prolonging a public health disaster that would have ended by now had the Republicans believed we’re all in this together.

As journalist Heidi N. Moore put it this morning: “I really think we need to talk about how being OK with people dying is a mark of sociopaths.”

Don’t take my word for it.

Shana Kushner Gadarian is a political scientist at Syracuse University and coauthor of the forthcoming Pandemic Politics: How COVID-19 Exposed the Depth of American Polarization (Princeton). Their book looks at how the former president put his needs above ours, creating polarized conditions around public health that are still with us. It’s accurate, she said during our chat, to say partisanship equals death.

Your forthcoming book is called Pandemic Politics. Everything seems like pandemic politics these days, especially given the Republican Party's attempt to sabotage the recovery. What does it mean to you?

My coauthors and I (UC Irvine’s Sara Wallace Goodman and Cornell’s Tom Pepinsky) looked specifically at politicization around pandemic policies very early on that created partisan gaps in how people in the public responded. For instance, as early as March 2020, we saw differences in health behaviors by the party someone identifies with.

We have survey data looking at policy attitudes, behaviors and evaluations of government from March 2020 to April 2021. These partisan gaps that we saw early on have stuck around.

Donald Trump focused on the economy and getting the country going again to help his reelection and undercut public health early on. So people who trusted him and identified with him and the GOP were less likely than Democrats to support public health policies, like masking.

We've seen the continuation of this alignment of party identification and attitudes on most issues around the pandemic. Even now that Trump is out of the picture, the competition for this Trumpian position continues among GOP members who want to run for president, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and is bolstered by media figures like Fox host Tucker Carlson.

Partisanship determines trust in public health policy. But it's not like the government has been perfect. It has gotten things wrong. Yet Democrats appear willing to trust it. Why do you think that is?

I think there are a couple of things at work here. First, trust in the Centers for Disease Control is now lower than it has been in a long time across the board. That's because the performance of the agency has been pretty bad.

But Democrats have been more willing to trust in public health agencies and be more compliant because party leadership has emphasized listening to experts rather than making individual decisions while Republican leaders have been much more mixed on supporting public health leadership.

Secondly, Democrats are much more concerned about the pandemic than Republicans are. Anxiety about an issue leads to more information-seeking and more trust in people who can help you fix the problem. The latter finding about anxiety is from my book with Bethany Albertson, Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World.

Mistrust of government politics and doubts about vaccines are nothing new. In our history, is this the first time mistrust and doubt are being sown from the top of a major political party?

I think we have historical evidence that party leadership might not be interested in talking about or urging public health funding for particular diseases when they are either stigmatized or not seen as affecting their partisans (like in the HIV-AIDS crisis early on).

So, what I think is different now is that Trump saw the health crisis as mostly about his own partisans rather than through the lens of the whole country.

In the book we talk about a counterfactual about what would've happened if the first cases had been in Oklahoma City or Phoenix instead of Seattle and New York. We might have seen greater interest from the president and more coordination from the federal government.

But it's also the case that the bureaucracy had been so hollow from years of neglect that the early days were always going to be hard in the pandemic.

If nothing else, the pandemic has demonstrated how wrong it was for conservative to spend decades starving public services. Trump's stance was pretty clear in the beginning when he thought, wrongly, that the covid was a blue-state disease.

I agree with all of that. Underinvestment in public health is like underinvestment in roads and other infrastructure.

What's the potential for partisanship to influence trust in all vaccines, not just the covid vaccine? I imagine it's fairly high.

That's the real concern here. There's evidence that there was a partisan gap in uptake of the H1N1 vaccine in 2009 but normal flu vaccines don't have much in the way of partisan gaps. If Republican state legislatures start to undercut educational mandates for the covid vaccine and other childhood vaccines (like Desantis is talking about in Florida) that would be a big problem for public health.

What can be done about that?

One is the upholding of mandates by the courts. Second is a campaign to remind people about how important vaccines are for overall health. That campaign should use people from non-partisan backgrounds that are highly trusted.

But also people in power on all sides of the aisle should reinforce vaccination as an important economic, social and health tool.

Alan Greenblatt is a columnist for Governing. For a piece citing your work, he wrote this headline: "Partisanship = death." Is that accurate? Fair?

Partisanship is an identity. It's a useful one for deciding how to vote and what position to take on new issues. But it can also filter the information that we accept and what we think is accurate or useful. For the pandemic, that filtering has been really damaging.

I take that as a yes, it's accurate.

Yes, it's accurate.

There are disturbing parallels between the 2020s and 1940s in America

Regular readers are familiar with my obsession with political time – or how one party and its ideas prevail with a majority of Americans for four or five decades before falling into a period of transition, after which the other party and its ideas prevail.

But most don’t know why I’m obsessed. I’ll tell you. It’s because I have been feeling hopeless. I hate feeling hopeless. Knowing that history isn’t static – knowing that it moves in recurring cycles rather than in a straight line with a beginning and an end – well, that gives me hope. It gives me hope to know, good or bad, nothing stays the same.

These “paradigms” have been for more than a year a regular subject of discussion between me and Jay Weixelbaum. He’s a writer and business historian who’s producing a streaming mini-series about the time a Nazi spy joined US businessmen to toast the fall of France in a Manhattan hotel while a Jewish FBI agent investigated.

Jay’s project is called A Nazi on Wall Street. (You can donate to the cause here.) During our conversation, he explained why he believes we are moving into a new paradigm and how the choices made in the 1940s seem to mirror choices being made in the 2020s. We could have turned fully fascist back then. Let’s hope we don’t do that now.

READ: Prominent QAnon anti-vaxxer who called for Anthony Fauci’s execution dies of COVID-19

In a recent thread, you said the J6 insurrection was a watershed moment between “paradigms.” Can you explain what you mean by “paradigms.” What does J6 have to do with them?

A “paradigm shift” describes a major change in our lives. The term "status quo" describes a time when we have a shared understanding about how politics work, how economics work and how culture works. When a paradigm shift happens, the status quo changes.

Paradigm shifts can take many years, and my belief is that we know we're in one when it's not just scholars pointing this out – but when everyone sees it and feels it. January 6 was a moment like that.

Many historians have observed that the Republican Party had been in the business of rejecting democratic ideals since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s. They were unwilling to share democracy with people they deemed were less than them.

READ: 'Traitor' Jim Jordan mocked for refusing to comply with Jan. 6 committee — after declaring 'nothing to hide'

Watergate was part of this. The 2000 election and the 2016 election were other watershed moments of the GOP's slide toward a full rejection of American democracy. I see J6 as a culmination.

Can you characterize the paradigm we are leaving and perhaps the one we are entering?

Paradigms are a buildup of chaos in our political, economic and social systems, as unresolved problems feed off each other. In chaotic periods, even small events can have enormous impact. We're right in the middle of the shift, so it's hard to see where we are going.

The reason I'm adapting my research on American businessmen working with Nazis in 1940 into a streaming mini-series is because in 1940, it really wasn't clear which way things were going. That was a paradigm shift, too.

READ: Cult survivor explains how Trump 'weaponizes' the 'us vs. them' tactics of a 'cult leader'

We grow up with stories about a triumphant America that won World War II, but in 1940, it wasn't at all clear how history was going to play out. I want American audiences to understand that, especially as we inevitably look back and reflect on our current moment,

Just as 2020 was a crucial year. I believe 2022 will also decide our fates for the next era, however long it will be. Democrats in Congress are beginning the process of altering the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation this week, which is a direct response to GOP legislatures passing laws to throw out millions of votes they may happen to dislike. Democratic leaders call this a "continuation of January 6."

That's crucial, and we don't know how this will play out.

Another big, unpredictable factor is the pandemic. I think future historians (provided humanity survives) will debate how covid helped push the previous president out of power, particularly his lack of ability to address it effectively.

READ: Noam Chomsky: 'Proto-fascism' and 'white nationalism are prime ingredients of the GOP’s slow-motion coup

A third major factor is the midterms. Yes, the previous status quo predicts the party holding the White House to take losses. But if we are headed toward a new status quo, the rules may no longer apply.

Corporate donations to GOP House candidates is about half of what it was. And gerrymandering, while still a major threat to democracy, hasn't played out as badly as it could have after the 2020 census.

Also, depending on how the Supreme Court rules on reproductive choice, this may dramatically affect turnout.

So there's still a bunch of unknowns that could have a major impact in this critical turning point.

READ: Automated killer robots aren't science fiction anymore — and the world isn't ready

When did this start? With the white backlash against civil rights?

The civil rights era and feminism in particular, as well as a hostility to the New Deal, animated the right. They built up religious and allegedly libertarian factions in the 1970s that coalesced in the “Reagan Revolution,” which could then be escalated for four decades.

History is always events leading to and from each other. There are certainly antecedents in the 1920s and 1930s GOP. It was taking money from literal Nazi spies in order to try to sweep FDR out of power.

Our government knew this was happening. There was an intense and often unseen struggle to fight back against this Nazi-American rightwing coalition.

READ: Indiana Republican under fire after saying teachers must be ‘impartial’ about Nazis and fascism

Is this the 1940s fork in the road you were talking about?

Yes, precisely. Like with other paradigm shifts, there were years of building to this point, and years of aftermath. Nazi spies were operating in the US in the 1930s. The FBI was tasked with tracking them down. Meanwhile, US companies had businesses operating within Nazi Germany.

Beyond these lesser known activities, rightwing groups and personalities espoused the Nazi cause to millions of Americans. Many Americans found this ideology enticing. It's easy to blame immigrants for problems; many Americans believed the US should stay out of European affairs; some Americans were sympathetic to Germany post-World War I. The radio priest, Charles Coughlin, broadcast these views to millions. He was kind of the Rush Limbaugh of his day.

Nazi influence in the US culminated with a huge march and rally in New York City in 1939. Thousands gathered in Madison Square Garden to listen to blatantly fascist speeches under the banners of George Washington adorned with swastikas.

In 1940, FDR gave a fresh directive to hunt down Nazis. The FBI built a secret spy headquarters inside the 30 Rock building to spy on Nazi activities worldwide, but especially in South America where they could get raw materials a war machine needs to be effective.

Without recapping the story of WWII, FDR was reelected, despite Nazi groups funneling money into Charles Lindbergh's campaign. FDR started providing aid to Britain and preparing for war against fascism. Thus, the paradigm shift started to turn on the events of 1940.

The president pinned blame for J6 on Trump. No sitting president in my lifetime came within an inch of calling his predecessor a traitor. That seems like an indicator of paradigm shifting no?

Absolutely. I don't think we've seen anything like this since at least the Civil War. The evidence is so overwhelming, I think Biden was on safe political ground to take off the gloves.

It's also important to point out that fascist violence often starts with the war on the truth. Biden was making a clear point to push back on fascist lies.

I'd call the Republicans' sabotage of pandemic recovery a form of fascist violence, but that's just me.

I think that's also a fair observation. Fascism is unsustainable as a form of government. It's inherently irrational and destructive. It's an extreme form of populism based on emotions – feelings of grievance, more specifically. That's an inherently unstable foundation to attempt to run a society.

Economies need stability. Political regimes need economic stability to stay viable long-term. But fascists don't care about the long term. They care about feeding grievance addictions. They build policy around that.

Perhaps this ties into your observation about "civil war." It would take sacrifice of an order that most people would reject.

Exactly. I think the potential for violence and destruction is great. But I don't see that as long term, because people won't tolerate a consumer economy being interrupted so drastically by violence and disruption.

Scholars of Nazi Germany saw this. Just below their fake bravado, the Nazis were terrified about economic problems. We'll never know how the Nazi regime might have worked if it hadn't made foolish military choices, but it's pretty clear that things were quite unstable.

I think the Republican Party has been able to lean toward anti-democracy and fascism precisely, because it still rested on a liberal democratic order. Take that away and it's a new status quo

Agree. It's parasitic.

Yes! Fascism is a parasite on liberal democracy, but it can kill its host. Then all bets are off on how long it will survive.

What would tell you the coming midterms are different from previous midterms?

Preserving democracy is a key policy issue. It will be a particular policy point discussed in numerous midterm campaigns. Typically it's healthcare, guns, climate, etc. Democracy as policy is a new norm.

Telling people that they need to vote now or they won't be able to depend on the vote in the future is pretty drastic and I'd argue a new development. We saw it in 2020. It'll be here for 2022.

How the GOP continues to whitewash the Jan. 6 insurrection out of existence

The president pinned blame on the former president Thursday for causing the J6 insurrection. His speech was part of events marking the one-year anniversary of the day the United States Capitol was sacked and looted for the purpose of installing Donald Trump as fuhrer-king.

“Biden came out swinging this morning,” wrote Jim Wright, “and put the blame for this insurrection squarely on those responsible and it's about goddamned time. He should have done that a year ago. There is no compromise with those who would murder us for their own profit.”

Even if it were desirable to compromise, however, it would be hard to when the opposition party refuses to even acknowledge that the assault happened at all. Not one Republican in either chamber of the Congress participated in yesterday’s memorial. Their absence is part of a larger project of whitewashing the J6 insurrection out of existence.

To understand more about how the Republican Party is doing that, I interviewed Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University and the author of Demagogue for President The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. Our conversation was like a crash course in understanding what’s often incoherent.

READ: The damning evidence against Trump and his allies is just the tip of the iceberg

Many of us know the Republicans are whitewashing the J6 insurrection, but most of us don't know how. Can you tell us?

One way to understand this is through the rhetorical form of apologia (self-defense). The common apologia strategies are denial (“it didn't happen”), differentiation (“it happened, but it's not what you think”), bolstering (“patriots love what happened”) and transcendence (“we should look at the bigger picture about what happened”).

You can sort of see the right going through all of those strategies as they've tried to revise our understanding of what happened on January 6, 2021. I see several important strategies being used.

  1. Conspiracy theory is being deployed as a differentiation strategy by people like Tucker Carlson. His Patriot Purge "documentary" claims what we think we know about J6 isn't the real story.
  2. Denial has been used since J6. We've seen minimizing strategies (they were just "tourists," they were peaceful, etc)
  3. Bolstering has been used as an ad populum (“appeal to the wisdom of the crowd”) by the elite to claim that Donald Trump's base loved that Trump fought for them.

READ: 'Is that English?': Newsmax cuts away from Marjorie Taylor Greene as her speech about Jan. 6 baffles critics

You see transcendence being used when the right tries to minimize what happened while claiming that Trump was a great president and that's what is really important about his legacy.

Those are all standard apologia tactics to try to shape the narrative. You see the right attacking the media, Democrats and anyone who seeks to hold them accountable. It's a real shame, because in so doing they are permitting and facilitating the erosion of democracy.

Why do people believe the Big Lie?

The Big Lie is easy to believe, to be honest. The Big Lie folded into the even bigger lie. We've had years of the right saying, "Politics is war and the enemy cheats." When you hear that enough, you believe it. Also, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and media bubbles work against people even hearing disconfirming information.

READ: Fox hosts clash over COVID boosters as one reveals his family's outbreak: 'I trust my doctor'

We have historic levels of distrust, polarization and frustration. Trump ran in 2015 using strategies designed to take advantage of all of those negative qualities in the electorate, and make them worse. He attacked our public sphere, attacked America. He's been attacking it since.

There's a chicken-and-egg question here. On the one hand, people blame Trump and the right-wing media for misinforming supporters. On the other hand are people like me, who believe they are not misinformed so much as given permission to do and say things publicly what they're already doing and saying privately. In other words, they are not radicalized. They are licensed. Thoughts?

If they want to believe it and Trump gives them permission to believe it, that's confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

Confirmation bias is when we look for information that confirms what we want to believe. We will hang on to the slightest bit of evidence, from the shadiest sources – even if it contradicts the general consensus – if it confirms our prior commitments. It's one way we resolve cognitive dissonance (the unpleasant experience of holding two incompatible opinions or facts).

READ: How Democrats may have blown their chance to seriously dominate US politics after the Jan. 6 insurrection

Motivated reasoning is the bigger picture of how our thought process works. We think that we think like scientists, impartially looking for evidence and testing carefully, but in fact, we think more like lawyers building a case for our side.

Here's the thing that interests me: none of us have direct, first-hand experience with what is going on in politics. So if we want to know anything about politics, we have to trust a news source. Those sources "cultivate" political reality for us. None of us really know. We know only through these media frames.

There used to be a consensus about what political reality was because there was a common agenda set via consensus media organizations. But we've been in the agenda-setting wars for a long time now. The once unified political spectacle has fractured into several political spectacles. But it's all still spectacle.

Why do we allow these political spectacles to divide us?

READ: The completely shocking things Trump and his followers now believe

I think it started after Barack Obama won.

The financial collapse/Obama’s election/War on Terror-era certainly was a conjuncture. The disaffected left and the disaffected right have a lot in common. Both are frustrated by neoliberalism, by corruption and cheaters, and feeling stressed and disempowered.

But the powerful point to the things that divide us more than the things we agree on and use them as a wedge. Or, even if we agree on the problems, we don't agree on the solutions. And we don't have a common reality that can help to mediate those differences.

Can you identify ways the powerful wedge us?

The first example that comes to mind is the spectacle of "critical race theory" and what we teach our children. I have a school-aged kid and I can tell you that everyone is unhappy with the schools, including the people who work in them. It's a hard job! And parents are so concerned about their kids. But we don't fund our schools and our classrooms are overcrowded and kids are difficult to control and the whole thing is a mess and frustrating. But we don't talk about it from that perspective. Instead, the right has riled up parents about "crt."

We could have a serious conversation about what's not working well in our schools, what our kids need, how to fund that kind of education and how to produce really smart, happy kids, but instead we have a pro/con moral panic about something that isn't even real.

That's what I'd call a wedge being used to divide people.

In a recent post, you said the Republicans want people to focus on “everyday Trump supporters who wandered in” during the J6 insurrection, not the “militia and other well-trained and organized people who sought to overturn the election by force.” What’s going on here?

Yes, that's a form of eulogistic covering, a term coined by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in which something negative is covered over with something acceptable or positive.

There were paramilitary operatives in the January 6 crowd. They were well-trained and organized. They worked together to get through the crowd. There's video evidence of this. They knew what they were doing and they were determined to get into the Capitol to stop the certification (or worse).

But they were not the bulk of people who attended the rally. Those people were there because Trump told them to be. They got swept up in the crowd and the insurrection. The Republican leadership wants us to focus on the average Trump supporter who was there to exercise their "free speech" rather than on the militia. They're using the average Trump supporter as a shield (eulogistic covering) for the militia.

Can the truth compete with lies?

Lies are really seductive, especially when they tell us what we want to believe. But I want to believe that the truth can not only compete, but that it's what we prefer. (I have motivated reasoning too!)

I think we'd really rather know than not know to face reality. It's Plato's Allegory of the Cave. We're deluded by shadows. If we learn that truth, it hurts us. When we try to tell others about the delusion, they try to hurt us. It's easier to pretend you don't know about the delusion.

But knowing is powerful. If you can know about the delusion, you can fix it. If you can see, it doesn't have power over you. I don't think we want to feel helpless. So you have to give people the truth in a way that makes them feel powerful and in control. So much of our political discourse is about disempowering people.

Trumpism is rooted in twisted visions of medieval Europe

When we think about medieval Europe, we tend to think about kings ruling with iron fists, about Christian crusaders purifying Jerusalem with the blood of the unbelievers, or about Greek and Roman thinking cast into darkness.

It wasn’t so. According to The Bright Ages, a new book by Matt Gabriele and David Perry, kings often worried about their legitimacy, the crusaders were pragmatists, and Greek and Roman learning and culture carried on, not because Muslim scholars preserved it, but because Rome never really fell.

Among a welter of stunning revelations, the book offers this too: democracy is not the product of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. It was not revived after the Middle Ages forgot the glory of Athens. It has probably been practiced for as long as groups of people struggled with each other, and with themselves, over power and resources. Even some aristocrats voted!

After reading The Bright Ages, I got in touch with Matt Gabriele, because so much of our current politics, especially overt white supremacy, seeks to legitimize itself by calling forth visions of some kind of noble white past. Again, not so. Matt is a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech as well as a contributor to the Editorial Board. We started by talking about cities.

One of the core arguments about the "fall of Rome" has been de-urbanization – that Europe moved from a primarily urban, Mediterranean civilization to a rural, agricultural one. There's a kernel of truth there, but it tends to obscure that cities continued, especially where they had been, but also in new places.

In those cities, older forms of government persisted – ones in which people voted on things. Certainly, as we note, those who could vote were a very limited subset, but the idea that all government was autocracy is not true

I take your point that cities are and can be laboratories for democratic experimentation. Groups like to vote on things. Even the Crusades were often led by councils who voted. The First Crusade in 1095-1099, for example, had a group of nobles who collectively led the expedition. The Fourth Crusade of the early 13th century had a council that voted on almost everything, including who should be the new emperor of Constantinople!

Americans tend to think democracy began with us, or anyway with the Enlightenment. But your history shows it being much older. Your book notes that the earliest “national” democracy might have been Iceland.

Perhaps. Some "Viking" (Scandinavian) communities were organized around communal decision-making. Iceland (which wasn't really a "nation" in the central Middle Ages, but more a collection of loosely-connected communities) was one of them. Part of the reason behind their collective governmental organization, though, was precisely because there was no one powerful enough to claim power over the rest of the groups.

In other words, collective decision-making in medieval Europe was often very practical. Even the Carolingians – an imperial family in the 9th century – were deeply reliant on the nobility as councilors and power-brokers. The age of absolute monarchy is an early-modern thing, not a medieval thing.

It seems kings not only sought ways to legitimize power but also the consent of those they ruled over. By "those," I'm guessing elites, but also anyone with influence socially. Consent might be too strong a word.

Yeah, I think that's fair. Kings couldn't unilaterally decide to do something and then do it, or at least if they did, they risked serious repercussions.

For example, the Carolingians in the 9th century. Charlemagne ruled an empire covering almost all of continental Europe, was crowned Roman emperor in Rome by the pope, and traded emissaries with the Byzantine ruler in Constantinople and the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad.

Yet he was on the throne because his father, Pepin, engineered a coup to overthrow the ruling dynasty. Charlemagne himself faced several very serious coup attempts, his son Louis was deposed twice by nobles, and then the empire disintegrated after Charlemagne’s death in the next generation.

Medieval kings needed to keep the nobles happy, because although the title of "king" may have adhered to a family, it sure didn't adhere to a person. There was always a brother or son or cousin who could take power or whom the nobles could rally around if they weren't getting what they wanted.

It turns out the "clash of civilizations" didn't start after 9/11.

The idea of the "clash of civilizations" is indeed a modern one (though not one that post-dates 9/11). A lot of it derives from Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis [authors of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, published 1996]. But then it was retconned onto the medieval world after 9/11 to show a lineage (unbroken or simply "interrupted”) of violence between Christianity (“the West") and Islam (“the East").

But what we try to show in the book is that this story is really problematic. The initial expansion of what would become Islam out of Arabia was by conquest, yes, but they were at times greeted as liberators in places like Egypt and the province of Palestine. The emperors in Constantinople, even though fellow Christians, were seen by many in those areas as oppressors.

In Europe, Jerusalem didn't really matter to them for a very long time. It represented a sacred past (the city of Jesus), but had no relevance until the end of time when the events of Revelation would kick in. This began to change towards the beginning of the 11th century for complicated reasons, but it's telling that the First Crusade in 1095, for example, was indeed large but also that so many people did not go. No kings, no emperor, some middlingly important nobles and one papal legate led the expedition.

After the conquest of Jerusalem by the Christians – and even during the conquest – they were more than happy to make pragmatic alliances with Islamic rulers they encountered, playing Aleppo off against Damascus for instance, or allowing traders to pass back and forth, even across military lines in the middle of ongoing crusades. In other words, in the end, the violence of the period between religions was defined, yes, by religious identity, but it wasn't dogmatic. It was flexible and shaped by circumstances.

On a related note, you discuss two views. One conservative – that Islam and Christianity are antipodes. One liberal – that everybody got along just fine when given half a chance. You say that it's far more complex than either. Can you explain? You use a non-English word that's escaping me.

Convivencia. (It just means "living together.")

Convivencia is often taken to mean everyone got along by living with each other. Sometimes that's true. But they also "lived together" by hating one another at times, by asserting their group's power over other groups. In other words, individual relations between adherents of different traditions varied among individuals, and group dynamics varied from year to year.

READ: 'Civil war is already here': Journalist says the right 'has a plan' for 'violence and solidarity with treasonous far-right'

For example, we talk in the book about the taking of Toledo by Christians in 1085. Shortly afterwards, the king converted the mosque into a new cathedral, even after assuring Islamic residents he wouldn't. Yeah, he did that to punish Muslims and assert Christianity's dominance. But he also did it to spite some of the city’s Christians, who had been until then using another church as their cathedral. It was as much about asserting his own power as an outsider (against civic community), even if there was a religious element.

This is the complexity we're trying to show. Yes, people killed one another because of religion all the time. But there were moments when it didn't happen, when they made other choices – sometimes in ways that seem humane to us and sometimes because they were better served by doing so.

I want to talk about slavery, especially the creation of racial difference. You say in the book that that comes from Europeans living with "the other."

First, let me say we're really in debt here to amazing scholars like Geraldine Heng (especially) as well as Sierra Lomuto, Cord Whitaker, Dorothy Kim and many others. Until they began their work, really in the last decade or so, this was a marginal topic of conversation in medieval studies.

As a practice, slavery was common in Europe through the entire Middle Ages. The categories of who could be a slave, however, were not always coded by skin color, but rather by political or cultural identity (a conquered people) or religion (Christians in Islamic lands, Muslims in Christian lands). Its practice in Viking society and in Mediterranean society was also quite different in how enslaved people were treated and what status they had in society.

The creation of racial difference is a different matter, one that began (and this is an oversimplification) to emerge as religion became essentialized into the body, when, for example, Jewish identity could be carried by "blood" and so conversions (especially if forced) were thought by political and religious authorities to be fundamentally insincere and subject to "backsliding."

It's not that people didn't notice that people looked different from one another. They did! It's that the primary way medievals tended to separate themselves from each other was not by color (until perhaps towards the end of the period). You could have an "African" leading a monastery in early medieval England and he was revered for his learning! You could have an Ethiopian saint (Maurice) as a patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire!

Medieval Europeans would notice that people looked different from one another, but the primary way groups distinguished among themselves cut along different lines. Skin color could be a part of it but it was only a part.

The scary truth about the media's reaction to right-wing authoritarianism

It’s conventional wisdom among newspaper reporters that we should let readers decide. Don’t come to moral conclusions. Just present the facts neutrally, objectively. Leave the rest to the opinion pages.

But that conventional wisdom is running into trouble, namely a period in political history in which normal isn’t normal anymore. Indeed, the more we cling to the conventional wisdom – to these normal reporting conventions – the more harm we do to the people we claim to serve.

That paradox is put into sharp relief by coverage of the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. Its one-year anniversary is Thursday. The press corps had a year for soul-searching, but it’s still treating the event – still treating treason – as if there are two sides. The result is elevating lies to the level of truth, making everything seem as good or bad as everything else, and giving the impression that nothing matters.

I talked about this and more with Mark Jacob. He spent 41 years in the newspapers, mostly in Chicago. He’s the former Sunday editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune. Since retiring, he’s reinvented himself as the sharpest press critic on social media. If anyone knows how journalism should be done, it’s Mark. I began by asking if the press corps has learned anything.

Mark Jacob: They're learning slowly, too slowly. You see more instances of people saying flat-out that the Republican Party is an anti-democratic movement, which has been obvious for years. Of course, it's wrong to paint the Washington press corps with one brush, because some have been far better than others.

The Times editorial board likened the GOP to “authoritarian movements the world over.” Is that the progress you see?

Yes, that's a good example. But let's remember the Times was afraid to call Donald Trump a liar in 2015. There's really no question that the timidity and lack of truth-telling by major news outlets is partly responsible for the perilous state we're in today. I think many Washington journalists became very comfortable with the “stenographic school of journalism” and didn't want to give it up. If they quoted the Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers and acted like their comments were equally valid, they could stake out a comfortable position as "objective" and the small-talk at the cocktail parties would remain congenial.

Reporting both sides of cancer in other words.

Yep. "Melanoma might have a point there." Even when the DC news media was fact-checking Republican lies, it would do it in a tidy and ineffective manner. Often news stories would say what Trump said and then would say what the truth was. But they wouldn't start out with a direct statement saying what the truth was and that Trump was lying about it. In effect, they were laying out the facts but requiring the readers and viewers to do the math. This was a practice that worked to the benefit of lying propagandists.

You can call it “objective.” Or you could call it “irresponsible.” Can you explain to non-news people like us why it's the latter?

First, I think the news media have been misled in a quest for some mythical version of objectivity. Deciding to conduct an interview or write a story is making a value judgment. For way too long, political journalists have thought objectivity meant letting both sides have their say, even when they knew one side was lying more than the other side. They were being "objective," but they weren't being fair to their customers, who depended on them to sort out what was true.

A lot of current political reporting is a dereliction of duty. Editors and reporters should never let a lie get into their publications without it being aggressively called out as a lie. Sad to say, a lot of American political journalism has been defensive – designed to prevent the editors and reporters from getting angry phone calls from one side or the other. But of course, John, we both know that if you don't get any angry phone calls, that's a sign that you're not doing your job.

I don't think most consumers of national political reporting know how bad it is, morally and practically, compared to their hometown papers. There are just different standards in each.

Well, local political lying is often less sophisticated than national political lying. National Republicans are masters of the lie. I think a big mistake the news media have made is giving the American people too much credit. I don't mean that as an insult. I mean it as a sad fact.

When the news media carefully avoided calling Donald Trump a liar and just laid out the facts, they were assuming, or at least hoping, that the public could weigh the evidence and figure out that Trump was lying.

But large segments of the public didn't reach that conclusion. Perhaps the most important lesson of this era is propaganda works.

When the right wing repeats a lie enough times, many people believe it. Most of the news media and the Democratic Party think that if they say something once or twice, everybody gets it and they can move on. That's obviously wrong. It's why news media are ineffective and Democratic messaging gets mugged by Republican messaging. When you say the truth twice and someone else says a lie 1,000 times, it's just human nature to think the lie might be true.

One of the founding principles of the Editorial Board is that most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. It's our responsibility to tell them what they need to know. That requires, even demands, that we be judicious.

I'm so glad you said that. I don't think everyone needs to be a political nerd like I am to be a good American. There's an elitism in politics and media that tends to exclude people who are too busy registering their kids for soccer to find the time to read a Washington Post op-ed.

The real challenge for people who want to prevent a radical fascist minority from taking over this country is to get people who "don't care about politics" to realize they need to take actions now — register to vote, give money and time to good candidates — if they don't want to see their kids grow up in a dictatorship.

In one of your recent posts, you address a thorny question among news people. What counts as newsworthy? Usually, it's what’s not normal. That judgment privileges the status quo, which is a problem for another day, but it also creates a rationale for ignoring lies.

When the Republicans flood the zone with lies, making them normal, they’re not news anymore. What can we in the craft? My two cents: stop troubling yourself with phony rules. But that's just me.

We definitely need new definitions of newsworthiness. We're living in unprecedented times, with a threat to our democracy that hasn't been this serious in a century and a half. Yet you hear people on cable news citing midterm election trends from decades past as if they're discussing the laws of gravity. Nothing is normal now.

What we need to do as a profession is identify the most admirable American values – opportunity, fairness, openness to new cultures, for example – and identify actions that most deviate from those values. Dramatic deviations from Americanism are newsworthy.

In your question, you're referring to something I call "ethics norming," which is the tendency to readjust the definition of normality based on recent events, even if recent events have been horrific.

This benefits people doing horrible things. I, for one, think that even if cannibals have devoured a classroom of children for three straight days, it's still news when it happens for a fourth day.

The Republicans have a right-wing media apparatus. Do the Democrats need their own? Would that benefit democracy?

The problem with Fox News and other propaganda outfits isn't that they speak from a Judeo-Christian view or oppose single-payer health care or want low taxes. The problem is they are systematically lying.

Another problem is that they are putting viewers in a cult-like cocoon from which they distrust everything. Their viewers are brainwashed.

It would be good to see more news organizations producing factual news from a variety of viewpoints, including from the left. As I said, objectivity is a myth. Journalists can lead with their values and still remain faithful to facts. A few organizations are doing that, such as Courier Newsroom. I'm on its advisory board. But they're way outnumbered and out-funded by the industry of untruth on the right.

I might agree with “leading with their values” if the press corps were not populated by the children of the children of the children of elites whose principal value is social status. Most seem indifferent to democracy's fall on account of being insulated from democracy's fall.

That's the scary thing – that some people in journalism today might be just fine under a dictatorship. You'd like to think they would be so vocal in their defense of democratic values that they'd be arrested if a totalitarian regime took over, not invited to an annual dinner.

When you talk about elitism, it reminds me that a big task for both journalists and pro-democracy advocates is to make it clear to regular citizens that their lives would be far worse under a totalitarian system -- that dictatorships are a way that the elite steals from the public.

This might be the most important message to get across -- that dictatorship will make everything worse for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Cheating and corruption are built into dictatorship. Opportunity dies for the talented but unconnected.


The insurrectionists have learned from their failure on Jan. 6 — and have a new plan for 2024

Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the day seditionary forces sacked and looted the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn a lawful democratic election and install Donald Trump as fuhrer-king.

The violence stopped long ago, but the insurrection continues in other forms. State-level Republicans have been over the last year codifying into law an array of election procedures that could, in the worst case, create conditions for the stealing of a presidential election. As I said in August, the next time the Republicans attempt a coup d'état, it won't be loud like January 6, 2021. It will be quiet. It will be nice and legal.

To help us understand more, I got in touch with David Pepper. He’s the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party and author of the recent book, Laboratories of Autocracy. In it, Pepper explains why the threats against democracy are worse than most Americans believe. I asked David if we’ve learned anything since the January 6 insurrection.

David Pepper: I think we’re learning a lot about how orchestrated it was from the top. We’ll learn a lot more in the coming weeks and months. That’s good. There should be accountability. But most of America has yet to learn that those attacking democracy are also learning. They have learned from failure. We must focus on that as much as the January 6 committee is focused on the 2021 attack.

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What are they learning?

That they started too late. It was too disorganized. That while they were right that much of what they wanted to achieve takes place through state legislatures, that work can take place long before November 2024. So the next time, they won’t even need to do something that looks as blatantly illegitimate as storming a building. That’s important. A cornerstone of success is that it looks legitimate.

Which was the case for the establishment of Jim Crow apartheid.

Yes. It was a gradual erosion that gained speed. There was outright violence, of course. But the disenfranchisement of Black voters at the heart of it was dressed in the narrative of reform and “good government,” and upheld by the courts. So yes, it had the veneer of legality. It was sold as a battle against corruption and voter fraud.

The remedy then was federal action. Is that the remedy now?

It’s an essential but not sufficient step. History teaches us that if there isn’t a hard federal pushback against state-level attacks on democracy, those attacks will succeed. Even the founders understood this and would expect federal resistance to what’s now happening.

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But there also has to be a reframing of politics from all those who care about democracy, so that the champions are fighting for democracy in all 50 states, not just fighting for federal wins in swing states.

What would that "reframing of politics" look like?

Fifty states. Every year. Every level. No seats uncontested. Some percentage of what’s spent in presidential years invested every year, everywhere. The response will be, “That’s crazy!” But it’s what those attacking democracy did years ago. It’s worked incredibly well.

After the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, the Democrats figured federal action would protect individual rights. A consequence of that way of thinking has been pouring everything into national elections, ignoring local elections -- and whole states -- almost entirely. That way of thinking seems ingrained. Thoughts?

READ: Canadian political scientist warns his country must face 'horrible' possibility of US becoming a 'right-wing dictatorship' by 2030

Back then, a broader collective said, “There’s more to this than federal offices. In the states is where the levers of democracy rest. We need a game plan to build permanent success there.” That conversation hasn’t happened in a generation while the forces attacking democracy had this territory to themselves. One of the biggest problems is viewing politics through the lens of swing states. Once a state falls out of that category, it’s off the map. Those attacking democracy go after states like Virginia and New Jersey even after they appear blue.

It looks to me like you're trying to get people to think outside the current debate over the reform of the filibuster in the Senate.

The filibuster has no legitimate role as an obstacle to efforts to protect democracy in states. Voting rights protection must pass. But that’s only one of 30 steps I outline in my book of what we have to do. We can’t just wait around for filibuster reform as if that’s the whole fight.

But it's probably not going anywhere on account of a handful of Democratic senators not having the stomach to get rid of it.

My fear is our kids will look back at 2022 as the equivalent of 1877. Where a refusal by the federal government to stand up for democracy allowed those attacking democracy to succeed. Every Democratic senator who believes in democracy must start acting that way.

This is not like any other issue being debated. But too many are treating it that way, even those who are on the right side of the issue. And more than any other issue, there is a Constitutional basis to carve out an exception to the filibuster to protect democracy. The founders would be appalled by inaction in the face of what’s happening.

Can you explain that basis in brief?

Article IV, Section 4: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” This is exactly what they meant – “shall guarantee.” By republican form of government, they meant the will of the people being reflected in statehouses. Every senator took an oath. That trumps the filibuster. Numerous states no longer meet the definition of a “Republican form of government.”

They are increasingly "laboratories of autocracy."

Yes. Not only are they weakening the pillars of the rule of law and democracy, but they are operating as laboratories. As I said at the outset, they are always learning – from mistakes, successes, from each other. In the book, I walk through that pattern for the past decade.

So the Democrats could turn to the Constitution to carve out an exception to the filibuster, but that would require the will to fight. I think most Democrats want to fight, but there's just enough who do not in just enough places to prevent forward movement.

The Constitution couldn’t be more clear. And in this case, respecting the filibuster means you are violating your oath to the Constitution because 50 Republican senators are willing to violate theirs. This isn’t a policy debate. It’s whether you’ll fulfill an oath to guarantee democracy in states. The fact that [outgoing Republican senator from Ohio Rob] Portman won’t doesn’t excuse you from violating that oath.

In the Daily News, you said: "It’s a huge task, and there is a role for every American who cares about democracy to play. And it’s a cause that’s far larger than one party." I have to say, given how little Americans are willing to sacrifice in the face of a pandemic that's going to kill a million of us, that I have serious doubts about even those who care about democracy. Please tell me I'm wrong.

I can only hope you’re wrong. It’s why I wrote my book – to do all I can to wake people up. It’s much worse than most people seem to appreciate. It’s far more similar to the dawn of Jim Crow than most appreciate. Our political mindset and frame will not succeed in combating it, but there’s a way everyone can make a difference.

In a sense, you're working against the idea that people have lost faith in democracy. The problem is really having too much faith, no?

True. We are blinded by an assumption that this couldn’t happen here. If we saw the steps taking place in statehouses happening in another country, we’d call it out and see it for what it was. But because it’s here, we still assume the best. The founders did not. They understood the risk and guaranteed the federal government would do something.

Trump and others understand what’s happening. That’s why they celebrate [Hungarian President Viktor] Orbán. Guaranteed electoral outcomes, a minority locked in power, but with the veneer of legitimacy. Many of these statehouses are taking the very steps Hungary has. We see it in Hungary. But not in our own states. These states have the power to upend our entire nation’s democracy.

A former right-wing media pioneer reveals Democrats' big mistakes about the press and politics

Liberals spend a lot of time bemoaning the state of the Washington press corps. There are many very good reasons for that. But there’s a risk to focusing so much on the Times for its toxic bothsidesing or on Post reporters withholding information from the public until it comes time to sell their books. We risk giving the Democratic Party a pass.

If the press corps can’t be trusted to get the party’s message across, the party needs to do what the Republicans have done: invest heavily in creating an infrastructure for their ideas and rhetoric – or as Matthew Sheffield told me, creating an infrastructure of democracy.

“Republicans have spent decades whipping their furthest-right voters into a violent frenzy,” he said. “They literally fantasize about killing liberals. Democrats want to tell you about their latest policy idea.”

Sheffield knows what he’s talking about. He was an early pioneer of right-wing digital media, Ur-Breitbart, you might say. He founded Newsbusters, a site dedicated to exposing “liberal bias.” As a blogger, he was key to creating the controversy that ended Dan Rather’s career.

READ: ‘Big lie... big money’: Robert Reich exposes the ‘three powerful forces’ America will have to stop to save its democracy

Sheffield is an apostate now, alienated for good it seems. He’s now a regular source for news stories about the right-wing media apparatus, which is global in scale. I got in touch Tuesday to ask what he would say to readers of a small but respected newsletter for normal people.

Matthew Sheffield: When the right has problems, it gravitates toward tactical modification, not policy modification. Instead of changing the policy ideas they want, Republicans focus on how to better engage their base of voters. Democrats seem to think the public is more aware of their policy ideas than it actually is. This is likely a function of most left-leaning economic and social policies being more popular.

When polling showed weak support of the Republican tax cut bill, they passed it anyway. This was the story of most of Donald Trump’s administration. They’d come up with ideas and then just do them. By contrast, with Joe Biden, Democrats seem to be focusing their efforts on policies they see as popular. This is an obsolete approach.

Instead of focusing on how to alter larger political dynamics, as Republicans do, Democrats suppose that passing popular legislation, and spending nothing to market it, will prove beneficial. It hasn’t. People aren’t aware of what’s in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

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JS: What can be done about lies vs. facts? Take the "war on Christmas.” There is no war. Yet it dominates the imaginations of so many Americans. What do Democrats need to understand that they don't?

MS: I wonder to what degree Democrats are aware that support for Republicans is based almost entirely on identity politics, and that this has been the case since long before Trump. His supporters are fully aware he lies, but they see his utterances as in the service of the larger goal of protecting their Christian identity. The lies about a “war on Christmas” are designed to feed this persecution complex.

Since the GOP has become openly oppositional to democracy, this actually is an outreach opportunity. But this is work that Democrats have to do themselves. They cannot outsource it to the mainstream news media that seems barely aware that it's happened.

JS: To a certain degree, Democrats believe there are swing voters. The 2018 midterms seemed to prove that. Same for 2020. Democrats still think the press corps is interested in truth. What do you say to that?

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MS: The mainstream press is interested in "filling the news hole" more than anything else. The profusion of elite journalists who withheld critical information about Donald Trump in order to make money selling it in a book has demonstrated that many, if not most, media elites are not interested in public service.

Elections are decided by both swing voters and by casual party loyalists, that is, people who are more against the opposition rather than in favor of the party for which they vote. For all the focus in DC on physical infrastructure by Democrats, they have spent almost nothing on creating an infrastructure of democracy. You have to go where the people are and to explain yourself. Flushing millions of dollars down the TV ad toilet is not explaining yourself.

JS: Some have argued, I have argued, that the Democrats should go full-on anti-racist. But what you're saying seems to suggest they don't have to change their rhetoric so much as build an infrastructure for it.

MS: Understanding how bigotry is integral to right-wing politics is critical for left-wing thought leaders, but this is advanced political science totally inscrutable to the average person who has other things to do. One of the biggest things I noticed since leaving the right is that there are hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown at people who want to advocate for Republicans to the public. There is much less money being spent for the same reasons and purpose by Democrats.

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Simply "fact-checking" a lie is not enough. You have to provide an alternative so people vulnerable to it can have their needs addressed. We have a grossly asymmetric politics where about 30 percent of the media outlets advocate for the right and about 2 percent advocate for the left. It's no wonder things keep drifting rightward.

JS: Liberals tend to think, "Well, if I know this, everyone does."

MS: The public needs to understand how radical the GOP base is and what it wants. The mainstream media will never tell this story on its own, because it's not about DC gossip and because doing so would jeopardize its access to Republicans who have said gossip.

At the same time, most people leaning Democratic are rarely spoken to outside of campaign season. Mainstream media has little to offer them. Right-wing media not only defends Republicans; it helps with right-wing organizing efforts. The "critical race theory" strategy in Virginia only worked because right-wing media helped it along.

Democrats seem to think that delivering some speeches and running some TV commercials is how you engage with your voters. Not true.

JS: It should be said the audience we are talking about is what I call respectable white people -- white people invested in their public image as respectable among other respectable white people. Black people, people of color, LGBTQ et al -- they already get it.

MS: I think it is true that people who are in the crosshairs of white Christian identity politics are more sensible, but even then, they are not nearly as engaged with our political system as the far-right.

Every few years, the Pew does a "typology" survey to go beyond D versus R. And what they've consistently found is that "faith and flag conservatives" are much more engaged than everyone else.

What's happened on the political left is that a small group of highly educated group of mostly white people is talking to itself. And that it does not interact with or understand the concerns of the rest of its coalition members. That group is where most Democratic politicians and progressive journalists are in. It needs to get out more.

JS: I’ll end with a question from Thomas Zimmer, a historian. “I’d be interested in the relationship between the right-wing propaganda machine controlling the base versus the base following deeply-held ideological convictions about what ‘real’ America should be.”

MS: Right-wing media is a bidirectional system. Talk radio with its listener call-ins and websites with easily viewable traffic stats provide instant feedback to GOP elites about what the base wants to hear.

At the same time, it is undeniable that right-wing media does work to disseminate messaging campaigns created by elites. The Republican strategy of creating fear and panic over "critical race theory" is a good example of this. Right-of-center voters were certainly not concerned about CRT before the 2021 campaign. They had never even heard of it.

JS: Many thanks for being so generous with your time today.

MS: You're welcome.

The Supreme Court appears poised to use an under-the-radar case to upend freedom of religion

The United States Supreme Court dominated headlines recently when it appeared ready to strike down Roe (or weaken it drastically). That drew our attention away from another case. I want to focus on it.

Carson v. Makin concerns a Maine law prohibiting the state from funding religious use at religious schools on the grounds that doing so would violate the First Amendment’s separation between church and state. Such restrictions do not apply to schools, public or private, that endeavor to uphold the difference between religion and education.

That appeared to rub the court’s six conservatives the wrong way. They seem ready to minimize the establishment clause of the First Amendment and instead maximize its free exercise clause. That way, the Maine law forbidding funds for one kind of school but not for another kind seems like discrimination against a particular religion. That religion would be a variant of Christianity, as the rural Maine schools in question are not linked to synagogues, temples or mosques.

If the high court rules in the plaintiff’s favor, Maine taxpayers will be forced to fund religious use even though some of those schools clearly discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In effect, the court seems ready to compel the underwriting of prejudice in the name of equality. If that happens, we can expect similar cases in states around the country — all in the name of “school choice.”

To understand this moral and legal perversion of the United States Constitution, I got in touch with Christopher Jon Sprigman. In addition to being a contributor to the Editorial Board, Chris is the Murray and Kathleen Bring Professor of Law at New York University and co-director of its Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy.

Christopher Jon Sprigman: It should be a case in which the establishment clause plays a substantial role. But it probably won’t. I suspect the court’s right-wing majority will continue to ignore the establishment clause and blow up the free exercise clause into a broadly applicable special rights provision. A free ticket for the religious to exempt themselves from federal and state laws – most importantly, public health and anti-discrimination laws.

JS: Do these special rights provisions apply equally?

CJS: The court is on a mission to remake free-exercise law. Not too long ago, it held that religious people and organizations could not claim special exemptions to generally applicable law so long as that law applies equally to religious and non-religious actors. The court’s right-wing majority has been working to displace that rule with one that presumptively gives religious actors an exemption from state or federal laws if there is any exemption for a secular actor or activity.

JS: So all religions, then?

CJS: Hmmm, I doubt it.

JS: How would they fudge that?

CJS: Some of the religious schools at issue in the Maine case insist on some really bigoted views toward gay people, for example. The Supreme Court seems unbothered by that. But I don’t expect the court’s conservatives are going to welcome state funding of a madrasa that teaches that the US should be governed by sharia law. How are they going to distinguish? Not honestly, but they’ll manage.

JS: Are we talking about compelling states to fund religious schools and their religious activity but only the right kinds of religions?

CJS: First comes the shift in free exercise law, which compels everyone – including the secular – to give money not just to schools with religious status, but for religious uses. That line between religious “status” and religious “use” – that government could not discriminate on the basis of the former but was entitled not to fund the latter – is in the process of being erased. This means, if the Maine case goes the way the oral argument suggested it might, that the state may be pulled into the enterprise of funding explicitly religious activities under the guise of “neutrality” between religion and non-religion.

JS: How far can that go, though?

CJS: Well, I doubt even this court would allow a state to set up a favored religion. That would run into the establishment clause. But in practical terms the court’s direction benefits Christian religious institutions the most. They typically seek government support.

JS: But they surely won’t be alone for long? Would the court refuse to hear a case coming from, say, a synagogue or a Hindu temple?

CJS: I doubt it. But again, these are small minority religions in the US. Public funding will overwhelmingly flow to Christian denominations.

JS: The court seems to be inviting religious schools to return to their original status as all white. Many were founded to get around integration. Threats to that launched the anti-Roe movement.

CJS: We have an inkling of that in the Maine case. The state prohibits schools that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from receiving public funds. Maine has pointed out that even if the schools win on free exercise grounds, they lose on the basis of state anti-discrimination law. It’s possible the court eventually dismisses Carson, because the schools can’t get relief in any event. But it’s also possible that the next target is state anti-discrimination laws.

JS: So this is targeting anti-discrimination laws on the grounds that they discriminate against certain religions?

CJS: Yes, because if Maine can’t deny funding on free exercise grounds to schools that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, then one immediately wonders where they get the right to ban such discrimination and extend that ban to religious institutions.

JS: There’s no end in sight if that takes hold.

CJS: That’s where some fear this is headed – toward establishing a special right for religious institutions to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, and then, eventually, race.

The court has made all of this up out of whole cloth. The constitution contains the establishment and free exercise clauses. Its recent decisions are an about-face on a long history of insisting that religious institutions were protected against discrimination but not against generally applicable laws that didn’t discriminate against religion.

JS: I can’t help thinking of the Hyde Rule. The idea is if you disagree with abortion you shouldn’t be forced to fund it. If I don’t think, say, Islam is a real religion, why am I forced to pay for its activities?

CJS: I agree. One of the Christian schools in the Maine case teaches that Islam is not a real religion. And it looks likely that the Supreme Court will force Mainers who don’t agree with that to send public money to support it. The right-wing majority on the Supreme Court is remaking free exercise law to force governments to fund Christian religion generally. That’s who’s going to benefit – the majority religion.

JS: Let’s close with your opinion on this. The big picture?

CJS: The Supreme Court is a political institution. The justices are political actors making political decisions. The constitution only occasionally tells us what to do with any precision. Mostly it’s open to interpretation. Interpretation – at least with this court – is about enforcing political preference. That is clear to anyone who isn’t paid to believe otherwise. We need to start curbing the power of the courts – they shouldn’t be making so many important decisions in our society. Term limits for judges, court expansion or my preferred route, stripping the courts’ jurisdiction, thereby shrinking judicial power.

JS: Many thanks for taking time to chat with me.

CJS: John, thank you!

We are in the ‘Hunger Games’-era of American history

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said Sunday he opposes the president’s Build Back Better bill, the second of two infrastructure packages the Democrats have been negotiating for months. (The first one, focused on “traditional” infrastructure, was enacted last month.)

The news is moving fast. Negotiations appear to be ongoing. To get a better idea of what’s going on, I talked to Monique Judge. She was until recently the news editor for The Root. I asked Monique if Manchin’s surprise announcement made any sense, politically or practically.

Monique Judge: I think on some level, it was expected that Manchin would pull a stunt like this. When questioned about why he did it, his answers don't make sense. He said he was at his "wit's end" but when asked to elaborate, his responses trended on the "they know what they did" thing. NBC News asked if he felt there was still a place for him in the Democratic party. His response: “I would like to hope there are still Democrats who think like I do. I'm fiscally responsible and socially compassionate. Now, if there are no Democrats like that, then they’ll have to push me where they want me." LOL. Bye, Joe

JS: Rachel Bitecofer, the political scientist and data expert, told me this about Manchin’s opposition this morning: "It makes perfect sense to Manchin, who is the last Democrat serving in a realigning West Virginia, which broke for Donald Trump by 35 points in 2020. Manchin will need to win 20 points’ worth of Republican voters to hold his seat in 2024, in a presidential election cycle. That is pretty hard." Thoughts?

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MJ: If that’s the case, Manchin is playing a very long game that may not yield the results he’s looking for. And then what? Siding with the GOP is one thing, but attempting to manipulate the people through political machinations would leave a sour taste in people's mouths. After the win, then what? You begin supporting Democratic legislation again? Even with that being a reason, it still is hard to make sense of it.

JS: In your view, does Manchin want a deal at all?

MJ: It's hard to say. It was reported that he went to Biden last week with an outline of his own, which the press secretary said mirrored a lot of the president's plan. If he went to the trouble to create that, you’d think he would follow through. If there are major parts he disagrees with, he could state those plainly and have an alternative solution. At the end of the day, the work still needed to get done. He didn't do that. This is some sort of weird power play. It's hard to say where he is going with it or if he wants to get the work done.

JS: Schumer vows to bring a vote to the Senate floor early next month. The idea is showing Manchin Republicans aren't going to show up the way Manchin says they will show up. If that doesn't work, should Democrats whittle down the BBB even more to satisfy him?

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MJ: First of all, Congress needs to stop playing these petty-ass games of one upmanship. It's all ego. It’s not doing anything to help the millions suffering. Enough is enough already with that bullshit.

Second, absolutely not. The bill was already missing major parts that could help, including student loan debt relief – which a lot of people are still calling for. Whittling it down even more would render it almost useless as far as providing relief to Americans struggling and suffering.

JS: There’s an assumption that passing something, anything, is better than passing nothing. That presumes something else: that this legislation is a winner for the Democrats in next year’s midterms.

MJ: I don't know if this is a winner. If anything, I think it could make it harder for some Democrats, because their constituents will see them as not having fought hard enough for the right things. And I don't know if passing "something" is better than passing "nothing." What "something" doesn't help the people? Is that still a good thing?

READ: Watch: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unloads on Joe Manchin for killing Build Back Better bill

JS: I'm not sure policy is going to reach swing voters the way some moderate Democrats say it's going to reach swing voters.

MJ: Republicans do whatever they can to sabotage Democratic stuff. They do anything to push their agendas. Democrats seem to want to simultaneously "play nice" and also wag their fingers at naughty Republicans. If Democrats played the game the same way, they could probably get some gains. The time for turning the other cheek is over. It only gets your ass kicked. There is no "fair" when lives are at stake.

JS: My thinking is that Biden needs to get more strident.

MJ: I would agree. He's the president after all. He needs to pull his presidential boxers up and start being more resolute with everyone, Democrats included. For Manchin’s part, he needs to do what he was elected to do: put the needs of the American people before his own.

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JS: What could Biden say that would make you cheer?

MJ: He could say he wants to relieve student debt. He could say he wants to uplift the poorer classes. He could say he’s determined to dismantle the carceral system and come up with alternatives to reduce the disproportionate impact on communities of color. He could say he stands behind the federal decriminalization of cannabis.

JS: What’s your sense of hope for the future right now? One to 10?

MJ: It’s a three. We're doomed.

The climate is destroyed. Our economy is unbalanced. People can't afford basic needs. No one seems to want to do anything about it. We have billionaires spending their money going to the front porch of space (not actual space, mind you) instead of giving back to the communities that help keep their bloated businesses afloat. We have a global pandemic that doesn't seem to be going away soon. It has turned us all into one gigantic human science experiment. We are literally waiting to find out which petri dish we are on. Scary times.

JS: Do you have any hope that the Democrats will find courage?

MJ: Only with new blood. The old-timers who don't seem to want to retire are stifling progress, I think. Again, they want to play things "fair" and "by the rules" when we have now entered the Hunger Games-era of US history. The rules don't apply. We read the book. We saw the movie. But we didn’t think it could happen to us. Now here we are.

JS: Monique, many thanks for chatting with me today.

MJ: Thank you for asking me!

IN OTHER NEWS: Jan. 6 panel nails GOP’s Scott Perry as ‘leading conduit’ for Trump's election theft ploy

Jan. 6 panel requests GOP’s Scott Perry to sit down with committee to discuss Trump www.youtube.com

A new report reveals a century-old American aristocracy — and it's time to tear it down

The United States was founded on the idea of freedom by right, not freedom by bloodline. But that has not stopped the super-rich from creating what can only be called an American aristocracy. So much of our politics is shaped by a few hundred families, the .01 percent. Many of them can trace their wealth and power to the late 19th century.

This week, ProPublica posted a barn-burning report on fortunes amassed by the robber barons of old that are still going strong, generations later, in the 21st century. That’s thanks to a federal tax code designed and maintained in large part by our feudal overlords, whose sons and daughters, and institutions, define politics, even what constitutes private property rights and whose job is to protect them.

“The estate tax has eroded to the point that last year the estates of just 1,275 people in the whole country owed the tax — down from a peak of 139,000 in 1976 — despite historic amassing of wealth by the very richest,” according to the report, “The Great Inheritors: How Three Families Shielded Their Fortunes From Taxes for Generations.”

To understand the ideas behind the making of this aristocracy, and how it imperils any common sense notion of democracy, I got in touch with Barry Lam. He’s a professor of philosophy at Vassar College. He produces and hosts “Hi-Phi Nation,” a podcast about “philosophy in story form that integrated narrative journalism with big ideas.” We started with the ProPublica report. I ask him for his big takeaway.

Barry Lam: It should be not that tax law is trying to keep up with tax avoidance, but that tax law is in many ways designed for tax avoidance. Byzantine tax laws exist to benefit those who designed it and those with lawyers and estate planners clever enough to shield money. This has been going on since at least the end of the 19th century.

John Stoehr: Explain why this is a problem.

BL: I like to explain this by analogy to nature. Imagine 10 squirrels and through sheer might and force, one of those squirrels happens to amass a hoard of nuts in his lifetime, while the other nine scramble to survive. We can debate until dawn whether this is a just state of nut distribution. Maybe you think the super-hoarder deserves every last nut, because of their innate talent or might or social skills. But what happens when that one squirrel dies? Nothing their offspring did entitles them to those nuts more than anyone else. In nature, upon death, the resources belong to the commons. We can see how well the next generation divides things up by force or cooperation or whatever.

It would be bizarre to think it’s the job of those other nine squirrels to protect the hoard of nuts and see to it that they only do with the nuts what the dead squirrel wanted them to do, be it give it to their own offspring or whatever. It would be utterly insane if the other nine set up squirrel police and squirrel courts and squirrel prosecutors to enforce against each other the wishes of that one dead squirrel.

JS: The sovereignty of the dead.

BL: That's one way to think about it. The other way is that we don't live in feudalism anymore. We don't think a person's civil rights, political rights and economic rights in the world ought to be inherited and passed on in perpetuity. And we believe this for good democratic reasons. The eternal inheritance of great wealth, even the growth of it, perpetuated by the state no less, because it is the job of the state to enforce property rights and transfers, is feudalism in disguise. Some of these tax avoidance schemes – dynasty trusts – actually make trust fund beneficiaries immune from certain laws, making them have a superior civil status simply by virtue of being inheritors of wealth.

JS: What we're talking about is almost literally an aristocracy, no?

BL: In some ways, it’s worse. The Propublica piece hinted at is the creation of nonprofit foundations. It’s a way of preserving not only aristocracy, but past aristocracy. It’s letting your money speak for you forever after death. We would never put up with this if a dead person insisted on voting. But the equivalent is happening in the spending of the dead person's money in a trust on their political projects.

JS: Warren Buffett once said money is better spent through philanthropy than through government. That's contempt for democracy, but you're saying it's more dangerous than contempt.

BL: Philanthropy can be good. Some of it can be better than the government. But it's also unaccountable, and it's also de facto inefficient. A lot of trusts put their millions or billions in endowments that invest in stocks, bonds, crypto, whatever, with about 4 to 5 percent, in a good organization, going to causes. And that doesn't even get to whether those causes are in fact good or not. Billionaire philanthropy is growing money to ensure it’s large forever.

JS: ProPublica's report illustrated what's done with the money. On the one hand Andrew Mellon's heir covered 98 percent of the cost of building a border wall in Texas. On the other EW Scripps' heir buys gold AK-47s, yachts and Lamborghinis. So a dangerous ideologue on one side, a total degenerate on the other. Either way, how the money is spent isn't put to any use beneficial to the common good.

BL: Go back to the squirrel analogy. Those nine squirrels had the opportunity, and in actual nature will in fact, just collect those nuts themselves. None of us humans observing would think twice about it, we certainly wouldn't think it was unjust. Now think about those nine squirrels watching the two children of that one nut-hoarder, one using all those nuts to build a border wall, the other to gold-plated Ak-47s, and not only shaking their head, but actually helping and promoting and enforcing a system that permits that kind of thing, even thinking that any alternative would be theft of nuts from those who are entitled, namely the offspring of that one nut hoarder.

The way we think of property rights in this country, whether through indoctrination or otherwise, is just off the charts deranged. I'm criticizing the 90 percent here because we're still in a democracy for now. These are our tax laws, our inheritance laws, we have complete say over them. But when I talk to people, the very first reaction is to think of a billionaire's money as theirs to do as they see fit, because they own it, and to think of all inheritors as having the same rights to that property as the billionaire. That to me is like the nine squirrels sitting around hungry, trying to figure out what to do with the nuts of that one nut-hoarder, since it's clearly wrong, to them, to take it.

JS: Put another way: The authoritarian drift we are experiencing in this country is being financed by the .01 percent, whose wealth is being protected by tax laws passed with the consent of the other 99.9 percent. In a democracy, we're all responsible and complicit.

BL: I think so. What’s interesting about the intergenerational case that the ProPublica piece highlights is that no one can make a good faith argument that inheritance is a matter of earning. In what way does an offspring, or a fifth generation descendant earn anything as a matter of merit? Even the most ardent libertarians historically have had a very difficult time explaining why intergenerational wealth transfer is a reflection of merit, earning and justly acquired property rights.

Some of the most free market libertarians have, for instance, thought hard and concluded that there should be a 100 percent estate tax with all of the money distributed as a universal basic income. This is from people who hate taxation and have the highest admiration for ownership, markets, and keeping the government out of these things.

JS: I agree with the libertarians on that one.

BL: They're thinking like actual squirrels.

JS: Thank you so much for your time.

BL: No problem. Thanks.

A sociologist explains the biggest mistakes the media is making about our political moment

You already know the House Select Committee released text messages sent to Mark Meadows while the January 6 insurrection was underway. Some of them came from three hosts at Fox, imploring the former White House chief of staff to get the former president to stop the violence. What you did not know was that some came from Jake Sherman. The founder of Punchbowl News said so last night.

“I knew I had communicated a ton with White House officials that day as I sat in the Capitol,” Sherman wrote on Twitter. “This thread stuck out to me. That’s because they were my texts to meadows.” He posted a screenshot of text messages read by ranking Republican Liz Cheney. The full House voted last night to hold Meadows in criminal contempt.

That the press corps was caught up in the sacking and looting of the US Capitol that day is a story only now coming to light. However, that we are only learning of it now is, to put it mildly, amazing. You’d think people whose lives were in danger might set aside their professional interests and tell the American people who’s doing what to whom. Instead, since January, the press corps has done more of the same. That might be good for the bottom line. It’s bad for democracy.

Among those finding all this amazing is Jeremy Littau. He’s a media sociologist at Lehigh University. His weekly newsletter, The Unraveling, covers the press and internet culture. After news broke of three Fox hosts messaging Meadows, thus revealing that they knew who was responsible for the insurgency, Jeremy wrote that the revelation was "one of the most critical political stories of our time. Not media stories. Political stories." This morning, I asked why.

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Jeremy Littau: The press has a habit of treating political coverage and politics as separate categories. There are exceptions, but daily political coverage is churned out by news outlets as if the media environment itself isn't a factor. I think a lot about what Walter Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion almost 100 years ago, that one of the most powerful functions media have is creating narratives out of facts. Politics doesn't happen in a vacuum, but rather it is shaped by media narratives.

What's happening now with Fox is at the nexus of two longer-term trends: the rise of conservative media over the past 30 years and the fracturing of the media landscape. The narrative power pre-1990 was for a general audience. Conservative media is only trying to reach a loyal fraction of that audience. Its rise has coincided with technology change that allows people to self-isolate in their media use.

Those powerful narratives are not just shaping a large portion of the electorate anymore. This is Lippmann's idea on steroids. They have become the way that a portion of the electorate sees reality. So when Fox personalities behind the scenes are saying the 1/6 insurrection was a horrible event but going on the air downplaying it, they've been caught misusing that power. That is a damning thing for their claim to be doing news, and it's dangerous for our democracy.

JS: In your reaction to the news yesterday, you said any other news organization would be concerned about misleading audiences. But credibility for CNN is different from credibility for Fox, right?

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JL: The news industry largely has treated Fox as a legitimate news operation practicing the same methods as everyone else. That's a reason you don't see journalists doing rigorous work about the broader narratives emanating from the network. That's what I was getting at yesterday. The details of those texts really aren't that shocking if you have some skepticism about how Fox turns its worldview into a methodology that dictates how it gathers and reports news.

It's fair to say consumers have different expectations. Fox's viewers expect conservative news. Hannity hosting political rallies, anchors shaping the news to make Trump look good – those are expectations. Loyalty to ideology and party (not the truth no matter where it leads, as journalism is supposed to be) are the expectation because that's what was sold to the audience to hook them in the first place.

The only time you lose credibility is if you violate that social contract. Witness what happened when Fox (correctly!) called Arizona for Joe Biden. The audience savaged the network for this. Accurate news didn't fit the expected conservative news network narrative.

JS: I have said before the power of Fox is proportional to the respect given to it by the press corps. You seem to be saying as much.

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JL: Yes, though I think the power from peers has less impact now that Fox is a mature brand. Respect from peers has largely meant not challenging Fox's news operation on the whole even though we have evidence going back more than a decade of Fox working with GOP operatives on talking points in ways that shaped the news.

Aggressive coverage 15 years ago might have had an impact on public opinion such that it hurt the channel's credibility. It still would, but the audience is so fractured and stuffed into echo chambers that that effect likely would be diminished. The ship has sailed for the industry to have a real powerful agenda-setting effect on the Fox brand itself.

What might help: sustained storytelling about what Fox is, what role it plays. It should be embedded in stories about everyday political fights. It's hard to really understand anything in politics without assessing the role of conservative media. You have to expose audiences to the sources and vectors of bad information. It's not enough to fact-check.

JS: There is some debate about what Jake Sherman should have done with his experience during the insurrection. Do you have a take?

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JL: My first reaction was empathy. How harrowing that must have been! That said, how broken does journalistic objectivity look there? The modern convention that a journalist is there to report the facts, not be chummy with sources and not be the story, gets exposed in moments like this. Objectivity says he shouldn't have sent that text message because that put him in the position of asking sources for favors. Once he sent it, though, he should have revealed he did.

But objectivity really denies humanity. Journalists depend on sources for access and safety. So Sherman played it straight with some expectation the system will work on his behalf – and it doesn't. An introspective industry would try to rebalance the equation here.

That Sherman has to beg, and that he still gets radio silence, tells you what attempts to play it straight have gotten the press. They can't even expect basic decency, let alone leaders protecting a free press.

JS: You said "the power from peers has less impact now that Fox is a mature brand." I might agree if not for the fact that mainstream reporters are ready to amplify Fox's propaganda on account of Fox representing what "the other side" thinks.

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JL: I mean let's think through what it would look like to have the industry turn on Fox and aggressively tell stories about its propaganda and misinformation role. The audience is so fractured at this point that such journalism isn't reaching the mass audience it would have 15 years ago. Whole days go by where Fox viewers aren't exposed to the events of the day being told by most other mainstream outlets. So that's why I say "less impact" instead of "no impact." It's about the extent of the reach. Trying to reframe the Fox brand is a real challenge that can't be solved by mere aggressive reporting at this point.

JS: Jeremy, many thanks for chatting with me today!

JL: Absolutely. Thanks for having me!