How to fix the Supreme Court: Expert says Congress has the power and simply isn't using it

For decades conservative Republicans have focused attention, resources and organizing on reshaping America's courts, on a scale progressives have never dreamed of. But now, with the complete capture of the Supreme Court by a conservative supermajority, and a series of stunning rulings last term — most notably the Dobbs decision, overturning Roe v. Wade that could finally be about to change. With the House of Representatives now in Republican hands, there's no prospect of a congressional response in the next two years, but that's all the more reason for developing strategies and organizing for action in anticipation of regaining the power to act in 2025.

Mitch McConnell's blatant theft of two Supreme Court seats has justifiably thrust the idea of court expansion to the fore. While sleepwalking centrists stifled any action in Biden's first two years, the high court's increasing recklessness has dramatically eroded support for the current institution, renewing the possibility for significant reform, particularly since the recent rulings sharply threaten growing popular movements in the Democratic Party's base. But what kinds of reform will actually work remains unclear.

Historical arguments have mostly focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt's abandoned effort at court expansion from the 1930s. Although that failed, it nonetheless altered the court's jurisprudence, saving New Deal legislation as Roosevelt had wanted. Furthermore, both the suddenness of Roosevelt's action and its abrupt abandonment are distinctly at odds with our current situation.

There is a much better historical reference point for us to consider, as David Gans argues in a forthcoming paper in the Lewis and Clark Law Review, "Court Reform and the Promise of Justice: Lessons from Reconstruction." Gans is director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights, and Citizenship Program at the Constitutional Accountability Center, and contends that the post-Civil War period holds significant lessons about how to achieve greater accountability in a time of intense political conflict. Perhaps most significantly, that period saw the most fluidity in the size of the Supreme Court — which is not dictated by the Constitution — but its most profound and lasting impacts lay elsewhere, in the expansion of federal court jurisdiction to protect constitutional rights.

Gans doesn't claim that Reconstruction provides a paint-by-numbers guide for what should be done now. His approach is more in line with Mark Twain's reputed aphorism, "History may not repeat itself. But it rhymes." So court expansion may well play a decisive role this time around, but that's only one aspect of the arsenal of powers Congress has available under the Constitution, and Reconstruction saw these powers were most vigorously debated and deployed. If Congress has rarely exercised those powers, that doesn't mean that they don't exist or should be regarded as unthinkable. But it does mean we should learn as much as possible from history. Salon interviewed Gans by email for a detailed unpacking of his historical argument. Our exchange has been edited for clarity and length.

When people think about court reform, attention invariably goes to FDR's court-packing plan. Why do you think Reconstruction is a more fruitful historical reference point, and why is this so little known?

The defeat of Franklin Roosevelt's far-reaching court expansion plan — which would have added an additional justice for every sitting justice over the age of 70 — receives the lion's share of attention in modern debates over court reform. Yet in many respects, Reconstruction provides a more salient historical precedent. During Reconstruction, Congress used its powers under the Constitution to reform the federal judiciary in a variety of ways. It repeatedly changed the size of the Supreme Court, stripped the court of jurisdiction over a class of cases that sought to challenge Reconstruction, and used its enforcement power to protect fundamental rights and expand the ability of the federal courts to redress state abuse of power.

Reconstruction provides an important reminder that Congress has many tools available to it to ensure that the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary upholds our whole Constitution's bedrock promises of liberty and equal justice. And unlike the case of FDR's court expansion plan, Reconstruction provides examples of reforms that were successfully enacted into law. In all these respects, Reconstruction provides a model for comprehensive court reform today.

You write that "almost all of the court reforms being debated today have historical antecedents in the Reconstruction period." The first thing you consider is changes to the size of the court — first it was expanded to 10 justices, then shrunk to seven, then expanded back to nine. You ask, "Did court expansion succeed?" And you answer, "both yes and no." In what sense did it succeed and in what sense did it fail?

Court expansion had an important effect on some areas of law, but not others. Court expansion during the Reconstruction era succeeded in producing a new majority on the Supreme Court disposed to uphold President Lincoln's wartime measures. It led to one of the quickest overrulings in Supreme Court history. In 1871, in Knox v. Lee, just one year after the Supreme Court struck down the use of paper money as legal tender, the new majority overruled that decision, championing Congress's broad power to solve national problems.

But those who hoped the newly constituted Supreme Court would vindicate the Constitution's new guarantees of liberty and equality were bitterly disappointed. Even with new appointments, the Supreme Court of the Reconstruction era repeatedly gutted the 14th Amendment, turning "what was meant for bread into stone," as Justice Noah Swayne observed. This reflects both the appointment politics of the day, in which presidents prioritized appointing justices that would uphold wartime measures, and a national mood that, as time went on, increasingly took a tragically dim view of Reconstruction's promises of racial justice.

The example of jurisdiction-stripping was complicated: Congress first expanded the court's jurisdiction, then cut it back. What happened to create that situation?

Reconstruction posed immense legal and political questions concerning the states of the former Confederacy in the wake of the Civil War. One of the biggest questions concerned how Southern states would be governed until they satisfied the conditions for readmittance to the Union. In the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Congress split the former Confederacy into five military districts and required the former states to ratify the 14th Amendment and adopt new state constitutions that broadly granted voting rights to all adult men without regard to race.

Southern litigants brought a slew of challenges to the Reconstruction Act, claiming that the military rule of the former Confederacy was unconstitutional. In the wake of an 1866 ruling that overturned the military conviction of a Confederate conspirator in Indiana, congressional Republicans feared that the Supreme Court would use a habeas corpus action brought by William McCardle to strike down military rule of the South and wreak havoc with Reconstruction.

Congress responded by enacting a law that took away the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction to review habeas decisions by lower federal courts. This move succeeded, producing one of the preeminent examples of congressional control of Supreme Court jurisdiction. Ultimately, the court dismissed McCardle's case, observing that "the power to make exceptions to the appellate jurisdiction of this court is given by express words" in the Constitution. Jurisdiction-stripping did not rein in the Supreme Court in any lasting way, but it succeeded in preventing the court from considering the constitutionality of the Reconstruction Act.

As an alternative to jurisdiction-stripping, congressional Republicans attempted to require a supermajority vote on the Supreme Court in order to overrule Congress. What arguments were made for that effort, and are they worth reconsidering today?

In seeking to require a supermajority vote of two-thirds of the justices to strike down an act of Congress, Republicans in 1868 stressed that the Supreme Court was initially composed of six justices, effectively requiring a two-thirds vote to decide a case. They also drew an analogy to the constitutional rules for a presidential veto. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.

Supermajority requirements are an avenue to rein in the court and make it harder to strike down federal laws, but they hardly offer a solution to a court dominated by a conservative supermajority, as ours is today. Even with a supermajority requirement, the Roberts court would remain free to decimate fundamental rights by overruling rights-protective rulings, as it did in Dobbs, and inventing judge-made rules, such as the non-textual and ahistorical "major questions" doctrine the court invoked last term in West Virginia v. EPA, when it invalidated a federal rule issued to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

In fact, the court's invocation of the "major questions" doctrine to require that Congress speak clearly if it wishes to delegate power to an agency concerning certain matters of political and economic significance illustrates how the conservative supermajority on the Court has been able to frustrate congressional intent while simultaneously giving off the perception that it is deferring to congressional power.

You write, "While court expansion and jurisdiction-stripping proved most important in the short run, the most enduring reforms were those that provided a federal forum to vindicate constitutionally guaranteed rights." What, specifically, did Congress do, starting with the Habeas Corpus Act?

Reconstruction witnessed the greatest enlargement of federal jurisdiction in American history. Many of these measures changed the powers of the federal courts to vindicate constitutionally guaranteed rights, seeking to make the federal courts partners in Reconstruction's project of ensuring equal citizenship and reining in abuse of state power. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1867 gave federal courts the power to free a person held in state custody in violation of the Constitution or federal law, while Section 1983, enacted in 1871, created a right to sue state and local officers to enforce federal constitutional rights in federal court. The big idea underlying both these landmark pieces of legislation was that it was up to federal courts to safeguard constitutional rights and ensure governmental accountability.

Reforms of this sort should be part of the progressive court reform agenda today. The Roberts court has repeatedly closed the courthouse doors to those victimized by government or corporate abuse of power. A central goal of court reform today should be to realize our constitutional promise of equal justice under law by broadly opening courthouse doors that the Roberts court has repeatedly bolted shut.

In your section "Lessons For Court Reform from Reconstruction," the first lesson is that the Constitution gives Congress broad powers to reform the federal judiciary, and the second is that "Reconstruction provides a lens to evaluate the reforms pursued by Congress," both its successes and failures. First I'd like to ask about court expansion, which you note "halt the 6-3 conservative majority's effort to rewrite huge swathes of constitutional law and imperil basic freedoms long enjoyed by Americans." How would you apply the history you recount to where we are today?

The Roberts court has repeatedly closed the courthouse doors to those victimized by government or corporate abuse of power. A central goal of court reform today should be to realize our constitutional promise of equal justice under law.

Appointments to the Supreme Court are a key way of changing the law. That's true today. It was also true during Reconstruction. The "legal tender" cases of the Reconstruction era illustrate that court expansion can be an incredibly powerful tool to change a hostile Supreme Court. Court expansion led to overruling a prior precedent on a hotly disputed question. Reconstruction also reminds us that appointments matter: Many of the justices appointed by Republican presidents during Reconstruction, tragically, played a role in burying the promise of the 14th Amendment's safeguards for liberty and equality.

Regarding jurisdiction-stripping, you warn that "A bill stripping the Supreme Court of jurisdiction and broadly foreclosing judicial review over a class of cases would provoke a major constitutional fight."

Taking away the Supreme Court's jurisdiction over a class of cases is one of the tools Congress possesses, but I worry that jurisdiction-stripping may not prove a successful avenue of reform in today's climate. Limiting Supreme Court jurisdiction would leave final say with the federal courts of appeal, which in many cases remain dominated by conservative ideologues appointed to the bench by Donald Trump. A reform that empowered conservative courts of appeal to move the law far to the right, without any possibility of appeal, would not be progress.

What other procedural reforms might make more sense? Reforming the infamous "shadow docket," for example?

Currently, the Supreme Court has virtually complete control over the cases it hears; four justices, less than a majority, can vote to hear a case. The Roberts court has used this power aggressively to hear cases handpicked to allow the conservative supermajority to pursue their ideological projects and overrule cases they dislike, and has repeatedly employed its emergency docket — i.e., the "shadow docket" — to move the law to the right, all without the transparency, deliberation and publicly available legal reasoning that is essential to the judicial process.

Congress can change this. It can prescribe the kinds of cases the court can hear, require a supermajority to hear a case or insist on a conflict in the lower courts as a prerequisite to Supreme Court review. It can limit shadow docket abuses by prescribing tough standards for emergency relief.

A third path forward is to "pass landmark civil rights legislation that opens the courthouse doors and ensures the promise of justice for all Americans," you write. "[L]egislation of this kind will be essential — indeed, it is also necessary to combat how the conservative majority of the Roberts Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act." Let's start there: What can be done to restore the Voting Rights Act?

The Roberts court has repeatedly eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the court gutted the Act's preclearance remedy applicable to jurisdictions with a long history of flouting constitutional guarantees. To employ these remedies, the court's conservative majority said, Congress had to write a new coverage formula. In 2021, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court's conservatives rewrote the Voting Rights Act's prohibition on state practices that result in racial inequality at the polls, making it nearly impossible to challenge a voting law that disproportionately disenfranchises voters of color.

Congress cannot alter Shelby County's constitutional ruling, but it can revitalize the Voting Rights Act by writing a new coverage formula and setting aside Brnovich's cramped construction of the Voting Rights Act's result test. Congress can make real the promises of the 15th Amendment by nullifying neutrally written laws that suppress the vote in communities of color.

You go on to say that several other areas of the law "cry out for congressional intervention." The first of those is to eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity. What's the source of this problem?

Congress can end qualified immunity, a judge-made rule that makes it incredibly difficult to hold police officers and other government actors accountable when they violate constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Qualified immunity has no basis in the law. When Congress enacted Section 1983 during Reconstruction, it consciously chose not to provide any immunities to officials who violate constitutional rights in carrying out their duties. By gutting Section 1983's promise of accountability, the Supreme Court has let government officials violate fundamental rights with impunity.

A second area you cite is rehabilitating habeas corpus review by repealing AEDPA. Can you explain?

Habeas corpus is critical to rein in state abuse of power and vindicate freedom, but today, habeas corpus is badly broken. The Supreme Court's conservative majority has interpreted AEDPA, a 1996 law that requires federal courts to defer to state courts, to make it nearly impossible to vindicate constitutional rights. According to the conservative supermajority, habeas review is an intrusion on state sovereignty and should be only available in the most egregious of cases. Congress can change this and restore a federal forum to vindicate constitutional claims by state prisoners and redress criminal justice abuses.

How can any of this be accomplished with a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court? Or is the real issue that the difficulties of reform will ultimately drive the process of court expansion?

None of this will be easy. Progressives should be cognizant that the conservative supermajority will look for ways to gut any new legislation enacted by Congress. Any new measures must be drafted using the clearest language possible to prevent the court from exploiting ambiguities to hollow out Congress' handiwork — and the likelihood that a court like the current one could simply ignore these legislative endeavors suggests it might be wise to include them as part of a reform package that includes court expansion.

But Congress should not shy away from acting on its obligation to enforce constitutional rights simply because it might provoke a clash with the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. On the contrary, progressives in Congress have to make the case that the Supreme Court is getting the Constitution dead wrong and that Congress must use its powers to vindicate our Constitution's text, history and values.

Finally, what's the most important question I haven't asked? And what's the answer?

The question would be: How should progressives understand the goal of court reform? What are the failures of justice that court reform should aim to correct? The answer is that modern debates over court reform are dominated by questions of court expansion and term limits. But court reform is about more than the composition of the Supreme Court. It's about whether the Supreme Court is acting as an impartial arbiter to realize the Constitution's promise of equal justice under law, to safeguard bedrock rights and to ensure that our courts work for all Americans.

The Roberts court is failing in all these respects. From abortion to voting rights to criminal justice to government and corporate accountability, we have a Supreme Court that is declaring open season on fundamental rights and putting accountability far out of reach. With a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court systematically bent on rolling back fundamental freedoms and closing the courthouse doors to the most marginalized Americans, a central part of the court reform agenda should be about ensuring the promise of justice for all.

How the New York Times helped Republicans win the House

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, there was a lot of attention focused on the role of "fake news," but a year later, a study published in the Columbia Journalism Review told a very different story, with the blunt title, "Don't blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media." Instead of fake news — which was a real but relatively small problem in 2016 (all fake Russian ads amounted to 0.1 percent of Facebook's daily advertising revenue) — it centered on an analysis of the New York Times' agenda-setting campaign coverage: America's paper of record ran as many front-page stories about Hillary Clinton's emails (10) in the last six days before the election as it did about all policy details combined in the two months before the election.

This article first appeared in Salon.

"If Clinton had a hard time getting her message out, she certainly didn't get much help from the newspaper of record," I wrote here at the time. "Even though Trump got slightly more front-page scandal coverage than Clinton did, he faced nothing remotely like the six-day avalanche she endured."

So I heard a sharp echo of the 2016 election on Nov 27, when the New York Times tweeted out a story this way:

New York and its suburbs are among the safest large communities in the U.S. But amid a torrent of doomsday-style ads and headlines about rising crime, suburban swing voters helped drive a Republican rout that played a decisive role in capturing the House.

Once again, the Times was seeking to make sense of an unexpected election result — the GOP's flipping of four suburban New York House districts — with zero apparent awareness of the crucial role its coverage had played.

Sure, Fox News played a role in driving national hysteria on crime, as Philip Bump showed shortly before the election. But in these particular districts, with majorities of Joe Biden 2020 voters, Fox could not have done it alone. The Times was implicated as well, and civil rights attorney Scott Hechinger, who heads Zealous, a criminal justice reform initiative, called it out in a withering Twitter thread. He called it "mindblowing" to see the Times, "one of the chief purveyors of false/misleading 'doomsday headlines' about crime in NY & around country — now reporting on the electoral impact of their own deeply harmful journalism practices. And yet mentioning only other papers & 'media.'"

Hechinger reiterated these concerns to Salon by email: "I get far more concerned with outlets like NYT and NPR than Fox or NY Post because they are far more influential with the 'gettable middle and moderates.'"

I wasn't alone in hearing an echo of 2016, confirmed by Hechinger's thread. One of the CJR study's co-authors, Duncan Watts, confirmed the conclusion that the Times was willfully blind to the role it played. He wrote by email:

I continue to be amazed at the apparent inability or unwillingness of journalists (especially but not exclusively at the NYT) to acknowledge their own influence on the world. They write as if they are disinterested observers merely reporting on events over which they have had no influence, and over whose coverage they had no choice; yet neither of these assumptions seems remotely plausible to me.
Editors and journalists obviously have considerable discretion over what to cover (selection) — just look at the relative attention paid to Hillary Clinton's email security and that of Jared and Ivanka not even a year later. I would argue, in fact, that almost any issue can be elevated to one of importance if the media chooses to focus on it, and almost any issue can relegated to insignificance if the media chooses to ignore it.

Hechinger was not alone in calling out the Times for misleading reporting about crime. Six months earlier, Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, made a similar case after the California primary, specifically criticizing the Times' later-retitled story, "California Sends Democrats and the Nation a Message on Crime." That article — based on two highly atypical, billionaire-funded campaigns, and ignoring multiple others — was typical of the Times' apparent impulse to shift the national narrative on crime rightward, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

It wasn't just the Times' crime coverage that was deeply skewed to favor Republicans. Its obsessively inflation-focused coverage of the economy (again, certainly not alone) was similarly perverse, and also highly consequential.

"Why did we spend the past year or so reading daily stories about record high inflation but only occasional mention of record low unemployment?" Watts asked. "Both stories were true, but only one got consistent traction." These two "Democrats in charge, situation out of control" narratives may have been custom-built in the Fox News ecosystem, but the Times eagerly gobbled them up and amplified them across the political spectrum, crowding out contrasting narratives in the process.

Kevin McCarthy's county in Southern California had more than twice the 2021 murder rate of San Francisco, which Nancy Pelosi represents. Of course, neither of them was responsible for those startling statistics.

In the real world, murder rates rose in the wake of the pandemic, while broader measures of crime were more mixed, and neither had any intelligible relationship to congressional politics. According to California's 2021 report, the murder rate in Kern County, home to likely incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, was 13.7 per 100,000 in 2021, more than twice the rate of San Francisco, home to current Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But neither of those House members was responsible for those statistics. How could they be? Yet our political discourse was grounded in the fantasy that there was some relationship. The entire 2022 discussion about crime needs to be understood as a dangerous and damaging fantasy.

Nevertheless, Hechinger's Twitter thread makes a compelling case against for the Times culpability, highlighting key examples, such as how the paper's unrelenting support for New York Mayor Eric Adams' "tough on crime" approach and Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin's bad-faith attacks on Democrats, along with examples of a baseline "both sides" bias, if not a straightforward stenography of power

First, Hechinger commented on the July 22 Times story, the day after a minor attempted assault on Zeldin during a campaign appearance on Long Island. The headline echoed campaign messaging — "G.O.P. Assails N.Y. Bail Laws After Suspect in Zeldin Attack Is Released" — and its first three paragraphs read like a GOP press release, concluding with a quote from the state party chairman:

"Only in Kathy Hochul's New York could a maniac violently attack a candidate for Governor and then be released without bail," Nick Langworthy, the New York Republican Party chairman, wrote on Twitter. "This is what happens when you destroy the criminal justice system."

That accusation was patently false. As the ACLU of New York explained, "New York's bail law currently eliminates money bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies," so the assailant's release was dependent on a charging decision. And what wild-eyed fanatical reformer was that? As Hechinger noted, "It took @nytimes *23 paragraphs* to expose the fact that the local DA — co-Chair of Zeldin's campaign — could've sought bail. But declined to."

Hechinger also commented on a follow-up story that was headlined, "How Did a Man Accused of Attacking Lee Zeldin Go Free Without Bail?":

The power & consequences of a headline. In the midst of a cynical assault on truth about bail reform by GOP extremist Lee Zeldin, NYT still only mustered a not-terrible, but disappointing "both-sides" story. But look at the headline. Few read beyond it. What message did it send?

Then there was the Times' fawning coverage of Adams, a Democrat (and former police captain) who's generally been closer to Republicans on crime. Hechinger screen-capped a Maureen Dowd column, "The Mayor Who Never Sleeps," commenting:

The NYT lionized the hyper-carceral, chief crime propagandist. It began: "On a breezy June night in the Bronx, I was on the balcony at the restaurant Zona De Cuba, sipping a mojito, vibing to a salsa band & peeking at a special menu for the plant-based mayor of NY Eric Adams."

He later linked to another story, "Adams Blames Bail Law After Release of Teen Charged in Officer Shooting," commenting:

Look at this @nytimes headline. Made it seem like Mayor's LIE was legitimate. It took 8 full paragraphs & 332 words before reporters stated the truth:
Bail reform had nothing to do with this. Also the teen was ultimately absolved & case dismissed.

Hechinger then linked to another story, "The Mayor's Crime Plan Is Loathed by Liberals. But It Might Work," with the comment:

What was really strange about this headline from @nytimes is that the article actually *thoroughly debunked* the Mayor's "plan" as lacking in any evidence, facts, or reason. No connection between reform & crime. No data to support policing plan. So... Why?

By email, Hechinger explained:

The NYT all too often at best presents a "both sides" picture when one of the sides is brazenly lying and the other is firmly backed by data and reason. And for a population conditioned by popular culture and sensational news media practices to thinking very simply and reactively about health and safety, they're also going to be more comfortable believing the status quo.

A prime example cited in his thread was a screen-cap of the story headlined, "They Wanted to Roll Back Tough-on-Crime Policies. Then Violent Crime Surged," with this comment:

Doesn't matter what nuance this @nytimes article might've brought. Most people don't read beyond headlines. So most people thought "progressive prosecutors" led to a "surge" in "violent crime."
Fact: Any increases & far more decreases occurred *everywhere.* 2 lies in 1 headline.

California's counter-narrative

California, where we'll turn our attention next, achieved its lowest crime rate in 50 years of recorded history in 2019 after years of criminal justice reforms, as explained by Mike Males, head of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice:

  • Statewide crime rates fell by 12 percent from 2010 through 2019, including a one-year decline of 3 percent from 2018 to 2019.…
  • Crime declines accompany a period of transformational criminal justice reform, including the passage of Public Safety Realignment, Prop 47, Prop 57, and Prop 64. Despite initial concerns that these law changes would boost crime, most communities were safer in 2019 than at the start of the decade.

Ah, but how have things changed since 2019? Well, crime has risen in not-really-post-pandemic California, as in most of the country — but not evenly, as the Los Angeles Times reported in August, following release of statewide homicide data for 2021. In a column titled, "Violent crime is spiking in Trump's California. These counties blame everyone but themselves," Anita Chabria wrote: "The biggest risks for homicides came in conservative counties with iron-fist sheriffs and district attorneys, places where progressives in power are nearly as common as monkeys riding unicorns."

Kern County in inland Southern California — home to presumptive Speaker Kevin McCarthy, where Donald Trump got 54 percent of the vote in 2020 — was the most dangerous in the state, "with a homicide rate of nearly 14 people per 100,000, compared with about 6 per 100,000 for the state as a whole and 8.5 per 100,000 in Los Angeles County."

Merced County, another inland county and "a political mixed bag," was second-highest at 9.5 per 100,000 residents, and Tulare County (part of which McCarthy also represents, and where Trump also won) was No. 3 at 8.8 homicides per 100,000. "At the other end of the spectrum," Chabria wrote, was Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay Area, "which has been successful at beating state averages on crime and has one of the state's only (along with L.A.'s George Gascón) openly progressive district attorneys, Diana Becton." The murder rate there "remains around 4 per 100,000 residents," less than one-third of McCarthy's home county.

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A few months earlier, five days before the California primary, Males drew another comparison: "San Francisco's crime rates fall while Sacramento's 'tough-on-crime' DA presides over rising violence," comparing the records of Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert, a candidate for state attorney general at the time, and San Francisco's progressive prosecutors (Gascón, before moving to L.A., and the since-recalled Chesa Boudin) from 2014 to 2021. He reported that "Violent crime rates have risen an average of 9% in Sacramento while falling an average of 29% in San Francisco from 2014-2021," the exact opposite of what the "tough on crime" crowd would have you believe.

But facts only partly mattered in the election that followed. Schubert got nowhere in the statewide race, but Boudin was recalled in San Francisco, buried in an avalanche of billionaire-fueled propaganda, as Jon Skolnik covered for Salon. As mentioned above, the Times ran a story on the Boudin recall which Pacifica Radio journalist Brian EdwardsTiekert picked apart in a Twitter thread focused on the actual details of how it happened, which concluded by suggesting: "Better headline: 'Bucking regional trend, Bay Area's fourth-largest county trades progressive DA for vague assurances of continued reforms under unknown successor.'"

In his Copaganda newsletter, Karakatsanis laid out a broader argument under the headline, "How to Spin an Election." One aspect stood out, he wrote: There were "huge progressive criminal justice victories in California on election night, and the NYT just ignores them. I honestly could not believe what I was reading." He linked to a thread by Chloe Cockburn, founder and CEO of Just Impact Advisors, highlighting a number of those victories, and added:

In fact, all over California and the country, continuing a multi-year trend, many progressive Democrats did very well (and a few didn't) in elections about "criminal justice" issues. It's astonishing that the New York Times doesn't mention any of them.
So, what does NYT choose to focus on? 1) The recall of the DA in San Francisco in which Republican billionaire money flooded the race and created an overwhelming spending mismatch; and 2) The Los Angeles mayoral race, in which a former Republican billionaire spent $41 million on the primary. And although he outspent his nearest opponent by 10:1 ratio, he still only received 40% of the vote! 60% of the voters rejected his message.

It should be noted that the Los Angeles mayoral race predictably shifted against the Times narrative as Democratic mail-in votes came in, putting vastly-outspent progressive candidate Karen Bass seven points ahead. Bass went on to win the general election, despite another five months of right-wing-funded attack ads.

What's more, Karakatsanis noted, the Times "neglected to tell readers that the 'criminal justice reform' policies of the San Francisco DA were actually enormously popular. Each of his major issues (not prosecuting kids, cash bail, wrongful convictions, worker protection, going after corrupt cops, and more) consistently polled with overwhelming support for nearly his entire tenure," including the last pre-election poll from mid-May, which showed 55% support for a workers' rights protection unit, 65% support for an innocence commission and narrower pluralities in favor of not prosecuting children as adults and ending cash bail.

What drove the Boudin recall — beyond the vast sums spent to demonize him — was wildly inaccurate reporting across multiple issues, none more than the Times' own role in promoting the narrative that an out-of-control shoplifting epidemic had led Walgreens to close five San Francisco stores, a story debunked almost immediately by the San Francisco Chronicle: "Data released by the San Francisco Police Department does not support the explanation announced by Walgreens that it is closing five stores because of organized, rampant retail theft."

Karakatsanis wrote:

Using only these two local election-night results and ignoring all of the contrary evidence, NYT concocted a national story published at 5:00am the next morning about a reckoning for progressives and "shifting winds" on "criminal justice. According to Meltwater, this article had a potential "reach" of 170 million people after it was given prominent placement on the NYT website. The message to them? Democrats have to move right on crime.
As always with the New York Times, when you see articles like this, ask yourself: Why is this particular angle news? How did it get to the reporter and who pitched it? What is the goal of the article? How did they choose which voices to quote and which to ignore? Who benefits from framing the issue this way?

The sources cited, he argued, "overwhelmingly have political and business interests in promoting centrist, pro-police narratives," even as the article "almost surgically excludes any other perspective, including the perspective of the many progressive strategists and candidates who have won on exactly the opposite message."

That story was hardly unique; Karakatsanis takes a more extensive look at Times sourcing here, concluding, "Instead of quoting or listening to other voices, the New York Times mocks them…. Because it doesn't talk to anyone with different views, let alone explain them, NYT misleads the public with ludicrous strawperson arguments."

Times sources cited in crime stories "overwhelmingly have political and business interests in promoting centrist, pro-police narratives," Karakatsanis argues.

In the first installment of his Copaganda newsletter, "What Is News?" Karakatsanis pointed out that he was "inspired by the gap in what mainstream media treats as urgent and what are the greatest threats to human safety, well-being, and survival," noting as an example that air pollution kills 10 million people each year, but rarely makes the news. Instead the news is dominated by "crime" stories, but only about certain kinds of crime. He contrasts the recent media obsession with "retail shoplifting" from big corporate stores, to "the $137 million in corporate wage theft *every day,* including by the same companies whose press releases about shoplifting they now quote as victims."

It's worth noting that wage theft was Project Censored's No. 2 story of the year, as I recently reported for Random Lengths News, specifically focusing on reporting by the Center on Public Integrity about how infrequently the offenders suffer any consequences. Drawing on 15 years of data from the Department of Labor, the report found that "The agency fined only about one in four repeat offenders during that period. And it ordered those companies to pay workers cash damages — penalty money in addition to back wages — in just 14 percent of those cases." Talk about soft on crime! But that never hits the New York Times front page, and is never the subject of continuing political narratives, despite the fact that, at around $50 billion a year, it dwarfs all other kinds of property crimes.

Well, almost all of them. Another massive crime wave that's not news is tax evasion by the wealthy, which "could approach and possibly exceed $1 trillion per year," according to IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig's Senate testimony earlier this year. This has been enabled by years of IRS budget cuts, thanks to Republicans. Which is why IRS agents are being hired with funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, leading Republicans to scream bloody murder over Democrats getting too tough on crime.

Inflating inflation

Republicans' soft-on-crime approach — at least when the wealthy and powerful are involved — leads us to the next aspect of how the Times helped them flip the House: Misleading coverage of the economy and inflation. Recall that Watts asked, "Why did we spend the past year or so reading daily stories about record high inflation but only occasional mention of record low unemployment?" noting, "Both stories were true, but only one got consistent traction."

A Proquest search of Times headlines for the entire year through Election Day bears this out. There were 709 hits for "inflation" and 141 for "recession," but just 14 for "unemployment," and 77 for "recovery" — of which only 13 were stories about economic recovery in the U.S.

I turned to Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, whose "Beat the Press" blog began in the 1990s as commentary on faulty economic coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Myopia, oversimplification and lack of historical perspective are the persistent problems he has pointed out, which he says continue to this day. He wrote by email:

I would say that the WaPo and NYT, along with most of the rest of the media, decided that the story of the economy was that inflation was hurting people, especially lower income people. They pushed this line endlessly, ignoring large amounts of evidence to the contrary. For example, wage growth was most rapid at the lower end of the wage distribution and outpaced inflation for the bottom 40 percent or so of the workforce.

Other perspectives on the current economic picture were also missing, he continued.

The freedom to quit a job you don't like, knowing that you can likely get a better one, has to be a really big deal for workers who often feel stuck in jobs that pay poorly or where the boss is a jerk. ... In some pieces they practically lied. For example, the NYT had a piece just before the election saying that young people were unable to buy homes. In fact, the homeownership rate for young people had risen substantially since before the pandemic, and that was true for Blacks and Hispanics as well, also for lower income households.

Other facts were almost never mentioned, such as the "20 million people who refinanced their homes in the years 2020-22, saving themselves thousands in interest costs each year," along with "an increase of roughly 10 million people working from home" who both had more personal time with no commute and "saved thousand of dollars a year in commuting costs and other expenses associated with going to an office."

Dean Baker offers a straightforward conclusion: "In short, the media decided that we had a terrible economy, and they were not going to let the data get in the way."

In fact, inflation has been a worldwide problem, with the U.S. rate below the average among developed nations, so, as with crime, the dominant narrative has no grounding in plausible causal relationships. Did Democratic spending have an inflationary impact? Maybe the stimulus checks did — but they didn't cause Germany to have higher inflation than the U.S. As for the Child Tax Credit, which cut child poverty by 30%, its effect was minimal, according to this analysis by macroeconomist Claudia Sahm. "Unlike stimulus checks that came out in a burst, accounting for 16% of disposable personal income in March 2021, the new Child Tax Credit was monthly to families and was 0.5% of income from July through December," she writes.

American child poverty is way out of line with the rest of developed world, and has been for generations. Changing that would vastly improve the life outcomes of tens of millions of children — an enormous long-term benefit not just for those individuals and their families, but for our nation as a whole. To abandon that over an illogical fear of short-term inflation is foolish at best, criminally malicious at worst. But American politics didn't allow any serious discussion about that, with Joe Manchin's anecdotal fears derailing the entire issue.

The New York Times — here we go again — did nothing to counter that. Its role in helping Republicans win control of the House needs to be viewed through the lens of child poverty. By deciding which stories matter and which don't, the Times decides which people matter and which don't.

Of course the Times should not favor the Democrats, or privilege liberal or progressive arguments above others by default. But it should favor the truth on criminal justice and the economy, as on all other issues. In the election just concluded, greater doses of truth might well have benefited Democrats. But in the larger picture, if the media privileges factual arguments and evidence, that sets a bar both parties have an equal opportunity to meet. That kind of political competition is the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Hechinger wrote in the Nation last year about the profound disconnect between known truths and journalistic practice:

Today, we know, both from experience and overwhelming research, that releasing people from jail prior to trial reduces crime for years in the future — and saves tens of millions of dollars in each major city. We also know, again based on experience and also the most robust criminogenic analysis in history — a meta-analysis of 116 studies just released this month — that long sentences have zero effect on crime.
Yet journalism today continues to ignore these "criminological fact[s]" while instead following the familiar and dangerous patterns from the 1980s and '90s that helped drive mass criminalization itself: overly simplistic stories with alarmist headlines and dehumanizing language that rely predominantly on police as sources, neglect nuance, provoke fear in the public, speculate about short term crime data — and posit police, prosecution, and prison as the solutions to crime.

Yet he remains doggedly determined and borderline optimistic, as he told me by email. The best thing "advocates for truth can do" is continue to criticize and engage, he wrote. Some mainstream journalists "have been open to conversations and have listened constructively":

My concern is that the same patterns I wrote about in the Nation and keep plugging away at on Twitter keep persisting, & with some reporters getting worse. As someone who follows the truth and data closely, works with amazing folks around the country who are successfully achieving public health and safety without relying on mass police and jailing, and who represented thousands of people directly targeted, harmed and marginalized by the very policies the New York Times intentionally or otherwise reinforces, I care deeply about the Times getting it right.

What's behind Elon's Twitter disaster?

As was widely predicted, there's been a great deal of chaos since Elon Musk purchased Twitter: Advertisers fleeing, mass firings, hate speech spiking, a plague of fake accounts, even talk of bankruptcy. At this point it's easy to forget the early warning signal when Musk tweeted a link to a baseless anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory about the Paul Pelosi attack from a known misinformation website that had once pushed a story that Hillary Clinton died on 9/11. But it was precisely the sort of telling, seemingly minor and idiosyncratic act that poets and playwrights since time immemorial have locked onto as character portents of destiny.

This article first appeared in Salon.

That came just a few news cycles after Musk assured advertisers that "Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences," promising that "our platform must be warm and welcoming to all." Musk deleted the Pelosi link after it had already gotten more than 24,000 retweets and 86,000 likes — in other words, after the damage had already been done. Needless to say, there were no consequences for Musk, at least not right away.

That made me think of Chris Bail's book, "Breaking the Social Media Prism" (Salon interview here) and his ideas about how to build a better platform — meaning both one more civil and more likely to produce reliable information. If Musk genuinely wanted Twitter to "become by far the most accurate source of information about the world," he'd listen to Bail, a leader in the growing community of social science researchers who're developing a sophisticated understanding of our emerging online world. So I reached Bail what he made of the situation, before turning to others as well. While Twitter's financial woes and disastrous non-moderation policies have been big news over the past week, they remain rooted in the realities that Bail and his colleagues have studied intensively for years.

Bail suggested that Musk's retweet of the nonsensical Pelosi story was an attempt to "make a point," that being that "there's always two sides to every story, and seeing this as an opportunity to demonstrate that Twitter has some kind of bias in favor of liberals." But sharing such blatantly misleading information, he continued, "demonstrates what happens if any person tries to make content moderation decisions on their own. You get suboptimal outcomes, because drawing the line between what's acceptable and not acceptable is always going to inspire debate and criticism and disagreement."

What Bail found "particularly tragic" was that "Twitter already has mechanisms in place to promote effective content moderation. The one that's most important in my view is the Birdwatch initiative, which empowers Twitter's users to label posts misleading or false in a sort of crowd-source model, where people can then agree with those annotation, and they become boosted in the Twitter timeline." That sort of "community-led model," Bail said, can avoid the "hot take" mistake Musk apparently made.

Ironically, Musk pointed to Birdwatch (which he has renamed "Community Notes") when Jack Dorsey challenged his statement about accurate information by asking, "accurate to who?" But a Birdwatch note corrected him: "The stated goal of Birdwatch is 'to add helpful context to Tweets.' It is not to adjudicate facts or to be a universal source of information." An article in Poynter highlighted another problem:

"This feature is an absolute game-changer for fighting mis/disinformation at scale," Musk tweeted Saturday. However, as of Nov. 2, there were only 113 notes which were logged after Musk's purchase visible to the public — up from 34 before — which accounts for only 14% of the total notes submitted by Birdwatchers.
Of the community notes made public after the purchase, only one addresses misleading information about voting and elections. Dozens are about Birdwatch itself. One is about the vaccination status of a red panda at the Toronto Zoo.

Even if Community Notes takes off, it will have a tough time catching up with disinformation and misinformation spread by Twitter users, including the flood of $8 fake blue-check accounts he unleashed (and then apparently rolled back).

"Without moderation, platforms become a cesspit of misogyny, racial hatred and antisemitism, without any conceivable benefit for society. Holocaust denial is not free speech."

Then there's the issue of "whether the CEO of the major social media company should be chiming in on a case-by-case basis," Bail said. "I think the answer there is probably no, because it'll be impossible to appear objective by occasionally weighing in on stories of the day. That's not going to create the kind of environment that he seems to want to create, where equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats are upset."

Cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, whose work I've drawn on repeatedly over the past decade, expressed similar concerns. Musk's actions since taking over Twitter "are problematic and do not augur well for democracy," Lewandowsky said via email. "To take just one example, consider moderation. Without moderation, platforms become a cesspit of misogyny, racial hatred and antisemitism, without any conceivable benefit for society. Holocaust denial is not free speech — it is hate speech, and at least indirectly incites discrimination or violence. It is, at best, a shallow and uninformed interpretation of free speech to want to abolish moderation."

Furthermore, Lewandowsky said, Musk is "completely out of step with the public on this issue." In a pre-print article with several co-authors, Lewandowsky added, he shows that "people in the U.S. by and large support moderation and content removal for disinformation (such as Holocaust denial) that is harmful."

Musk's seeming indifference to spreading misinformation "indicates that he really does not understand what free speech means," Lewandowsky continued. "Free speech does not mean the freedom to make things up or to intentionally create and disseminate false information in pursuit of political goals. When Hitler claimed that Poland was attacking Germany in 1939, he was not exercising free speech. He was using propaganda to justify his own war of aggression. Putin is now doing the same with respect to Ukraine," he said. "The important thing to understand is that speech can only be free if is protected from propaganda, hate speech and incitement to violence."

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Bail suggested that the key to improving online discourse is changing the "incentive structure." In other words, "Rather than rewarding posts that get a lot of engagement, which tend to be those that have outrageous content, promote the type of content that produces consensus."

Cautions about misinformation and a process that allows for discussion and voting on content labels has proven successful, Bail noted — though it can't be seen as a sure thing. "The problem is that Republicans and Democrats may start to use the misinformation labeling as a political game," he said, and that's indeed what happened with Birdwatch at first. "But then Twitter implemented an algorithm that boosted those messages where both Republicans and Democrats appreciated the note, and this seems to have created an environment where people stop spreading misinformation. If you incentivize people to find consensus, it may have particularly good outcomes in the aggregate."

This dovetails with the findings in Lewandowsky's pre-print article cited above, that even in our current contentious political climate, there's an untapped potential within social media for bringing people together to have reality-based conversations rather than symbolic or identity-based feuds. Elon Musk apparently sees himself as a champion of democracy, fighting against the danger of "echo chambers." But Bail's book argues that the echo-chamber metaphor is misleading and leads into a dead end.

Consider Musk's widely quoted letter to advertisers:

The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence. There is currently great danger that social media will splinter into far right wing and far left wing echo chambers that generate more hate and divide our society.
In the relentless pursuit of clicks, much of traditional media has fueled and catered to those polarized extremes, as they believe that is what brings in the money, but, in doing so, the opportunity for dialogue is lost.

There's a profound flaw in that reasoning, Bail argued. "Like many tech leaders," he told me, Musk seems to "believe that social media should be a competition of ideas where everyone should be allowed to speak their mind and as these ideas compete, the truth or the most reasonable opinions will naturally rise to the top," Bail said. "So the concern is that if ideas can't compete, if some are banned, or if conservatives are only having conversations with each other on places like Parler and Gab and liberals don't engage in those conversations, it's inevitably bad for democracy."

The first problem with that, Bail said, is that "the vast majority of people are not in echo chambers," because "most people don't care a lot about politics, and you can only be in a political echo chamber if you have political views." But it gets worse from there.

The second problem is that taking people outside an echo chamber of mutual agreement "doesn't necessarily make them more moderate," Bail continued. "To the contrary, there's some evidence that it may even make them more extreme. The goal of most social media users is not to engage in reasoned debate and convince others about their views. It's instead to gain status, often by taking down people from the other side. So the effect of getting people outside the echo chamber is sometimes, counterintuitively, to create more conflict."

"The goal of most social media users is not to engage in reasoned debate and convince others about their views. It's instead to gain status, often by taking down people from the other side."

In his book, Bail gets into the more subtle dynamics that can emerge in social media. But these broad lessons are enough to signal that Musk's preferred pathway isn't likely. Indeed, every social media platform seems to go through something similar, as Mike Masnick laid out in a hilarious SNL-skit-for-nerds account at Techdirt, "Hey Elon: Let Me Help You Speed Run the Content Moderation Learning Curve":

Level One: "We're the free speech platform! Anything goes!"
Cool. Cool. The bird is free! Everyone rejoice.
"Excuse me, boss, we're getting reports that there are child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSAM) images and videos on the site."
Oh shit. I guess we should take that down. ...
Level Twenty: "Look, we're just a freaking website. Can't you people behave?"

It's a wicked, hilarious piece of work that illustrates why Musk and people like him don't understand what they're up against.

Lewandowsky called it "spot-on," saying, "I suspect Musk considers himself the great technologist and disruptor who cannot fail — he certainly acts like that — and that prevents him from taking a break to actually study the world and learn from it. He may yet learn, or at least his lawyers will, but that doesn't mean Twitter will become benign. There is lots of barely legal speech that's extremely harmful. That's what we have to worry about and monitor carefully."

Bail characterizes the disconnect this way:

Many social media leaders have treated social media as an engineering problem and simply argued we just need better AI, we need better software engineers. That appears to be very much the technique that Mr. Musk is using. The problem is, social media is not really just a piece of software. It's a community of people, and a community of people often resists attempts at social engineering. Also, engineers just often lack the understanding of what drives human behavior in order to make design choices that will promote more civil behavior.

Bail wryly adds, "I would love for Mr. Musk to learn from the many talented social scientists inside Twitter, but also from the broader field of computational social science." What he might learn there could challenge "a lot of his own assumptions about social media," including the idea that it's biased against conservatives or "that allowing a broad range of views will naturally produce consensus."

Another expression of Musk's engineering-based mindset was in this Nov. 3 tweet: "Because it consists of billions of bidirectional interactions per day, Twitter can be thought of as a collective, cybernetic super-intelligence."

"I would love for Mr. Musk to learn from the many talented social scientists inside Twitter," says Chris Bail. They might challenge "a lot of his own assumptions about social media."

That led research scientist Joe Bak-Coleman to tweet a response thread (upgraded to an article here), where he traced the hive-mind idea back to Aristotle's "Politics," noting that neurons are a poor analogy for individual human behavior, since they have no competitive goals. A better model, he said, is flocks of birds or schools of fish. The way those work is "remarkably complex, but themes emerge: groups are constrained in size or modular+hierarchical, attention is paid to only a few neighbors, etc." In the article he concludes:

So, Elon's premise that Twitter can behave like a collective intelligence only holds if the structure of the network and nature of interactions is tuned to promote collective outcomes. Everything we know suggests the design space that would promote effective collective behavior at scale — if it exists — is quite small compared to the possible design space on the internet.
Worse, it might not overlap with other shorter-term goals: profitability, free speech, safety and avoiding harassment… you name it. It's entirely possible that we can't, for instance, have a profitable global social network that is sustainable, healthy, and equitable.

In short, it's ludicrous to suggest that a social media platform as dynamic and complicated as Twitter is just an engineering problem. Another key point "about collective behavior, networks and complex systems" was highlighted in a quote-tweet by Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, one of the co-authors of the preprint article cited above: "Self-organization does not mean anarchy, but that good things can emerge if the (micro) rules of interaction are well crafted. Neither top-down nor hands-off will work." I reached out and asked him to elaborate further:

The magic of Twitter (and most other online platforms that rely on user-generated content) are emergent phenomena. Communities form, discussions evolve, and trends arise when people network with each other, but the results are neither random nor easily predictable; rather, they depend on the implementation of those interactions. That's the beauty of self-organization, when something emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts, which is what makes social media so fascinating and exciting, but also scary. But don't make the mistake of thinking that self-organization doesn't have rules, it just works differently than laws. The current version of social media serves primarily commercial purposes, and that also drives the evolution of its interaction rules. These interaction rules are what make complex systems like social media so counterintuitive: they operate at the microscopic level, between two actors, but their effects scale up to the macroscopic dynamics in unpredictable but not random ways.
In the current version of social media, some of these emergent dynamics are great, funny memes but also important social movements have their origins in such phenomena, but also all the dangerous dynamics of radicalization, polarization and conspiracy theories are fueled by the collective dynamics that are only possible on social media. But they are largely byproducts of the way social media has been used to date.

He went on to say that redesigning social media to serve societal goals, rather than purely commercial ones, will take hard work — and some very familiar strategies. He used the analogy of automotive traffic, where most of us support "the regulation of individuals with top-down rules," such as speed limits, seatbelt laws and severe punishments for drunk driving:

The opposite, the choice of a supposedly neutral hands-off approach, will lead to emergent phenomena that will, however, be driven and dominated by those privileged by the connections they already have and who are active because they seek power and abuse the scale of social media. These will be given a tool that self-reinforces their positions through collective dynamics, a scenario that we already see in the current version of social media and that is not consistent with democratic principles (e.g., representation).

We're better off sticking to democratic principles, Lorenz-Spreen argues, "because democracy itself is a self-organized system whose rules have evolved over many centuries. We may still need new rules for interaction on the internet, because we can (and need to) design them in an unprecedented level of detail. But that will have to be done carefully, and certainly not by one guy."

We're better off sticking to democratic principles, says Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, "because democracy itself is a self-organized system whose rules have evolved over many centuries."

Lewandowsky responded to a recent Washington Post article on "Musk's Trump-style management," which author Will Oremus summarized this way: "Inside Elon Musk's 'free speech' Twitter, a culture of secrecy and fear has taken hold. Managers and employees have been muzzled, Slack channels have gone dark, and workers are turning to anonymous gossip apps to find out basic info about their jobs."

"Appeals to free speech, and complaints about being censored, have been a major talking point of the hard right for decades," Lewandowsky told me. "So we now have commentators on Fox News or columnists in newspapers with an audience of millions complaining about being 'canceled,' just because someone opposed their views."

There are darker possibilities. Investigative journalist Dave Troy responded to Musk's "cybernetic super-intelligence" tweet with a thread that inquires whether Musk is describing "the concept of the Noosphere," which Troy links to Vladimir Putin's policy agenda and a heritage of relatively obscure Russian and European 19th-century philosophy and theology. Troy suggests that "Musk is aligned with Putin's agenda and will continue to use Twitter as part of an effort to challenge the dollar, the [U.S. government]. NATO, the EU and other governments."

Whatever lies ahead for Twitter — which may or may not survive Musk's chaotic early regime — there's a community of people there and elsewhere, who have a far more realistic grasp of the promise, possibilities and problems involved in social media than he does. Musk can clearly corrupt or destroy the platform he now controls, but he cannot control the future or the emergence of something better.

How 'religious freedom' became a right-wing assault on the rule of law

The Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade sent shockwaves through the American electorate. But as shocking as the destruction of a fundamental right may be, more radical changes may lie ahead, as Andrew Seidel warns in his new book, "American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom." As I have argued repeatedly over the past several years, the religious right has mounted a sustained struggle to pervert the meaning of religious freedom, transforming it from a shield to protect the rights of all to worship freely into a sword wielded by the most powerful.

This article first appeared on Salon.

There are many facets to this struggle, but there's no doubt that the most consequential field of battle is the Supreme Court. Seidel's book does a masterful job of laying bare the full scope of that struggle and the stakes involved — which could ultimately mean a de facto end to the rule of law as we normally understand it. As Seidel notes, 150 years ago the Supreme Court warned that weaponized religious freedom would "permit every citizen to become a law unto himself," so there's much more at stake here than "just" the First Amendment.

As Seidel explains, his book is not meant to be a comprehensive account of this entire complicated history. Instead, he focuses on a handful of key cases, including a few that predate the modern "religious freedom" crusade that are nonetheless crucial to the story. He doesn't discuss these as lawyers normally do, in terms of court decisions and written and oral arguments. Instead, he tells the nitty-gritty story of what really happened in each of the cases, because official accounts often badly misconstrue the actual events. For example, in the famous "wedding cake" case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Seidel interviewed the gay couple as well as two members of the Colorado civil rights commission that the Supreme Court majority slandered as anti-religious bigots. The result is closer to a living history of our time than any other book about the Supreme Court you're ever likely to read.

I recently interviewed Andrew Seidel by Zoom. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The title of your book is "American Crusade." So how would you characterize this crusade? What are the crusaders trying to accomplish?

Religious freedom has long been a shield. It is this right that all Americans possess, and the words etched into the edifice of the Supreme Court tell us, "Equal justice under law." This right applies equally to all of us. It was supported by a strong separation of church and state, but not anymore.

There is a well-funded powerful network of Christian nationalist organizations and judges that are working to weaponize the First Amendment, to turn the protection of religious freedom enjoyed by all of us into a weapon of Christian privilege for the few. The crusaders' religious freedom challenges are superficially about things like Christian crosses and veterans or playgrounds or private school vouchers or bakeries and gay weddings, but really they're about religious privilege, often literally about privileging religion over non-religion, Christianity over other religions and the right kind of conservative Christians over other Christians. At its most basic level, they are trying to turn religious freedom into a weapon to reclaim and entrench their lost status as the dominant caste in American society.

You write that to understand religious freedom, you must understand three basic lines of argument. I'd like you to explain each of them and why they matter. The first one is "action versus belief."

What I try to do in the book is really simplify what has become — I want to say it's become a complicated issue, but that's not true: It's an issue that was deliberately complicated, and where so much disinformation has been pumped into this debate that the waters have been muddied. Because questions of religious freedom are not hard. Sometimes they're emotionally fraught, but in their push to weaponize religious freedom, the crusaders have misled and confounded so many Americans about where we draw the legal lines on this founding principle. So, historically and legally they're not hard questions, and I try to boil it down simply into these three lines.

The first one is that we distinguish between belief and action. So your right to believe is absolute. It's probably the only absolute right we have under our Constitution. But your right to act on that belief is not. There are a number of examples you could use. I open the book with the "Jesus take the wheel" example that's pretty popular, but the one that really drives it home for a lot of people is to think about all those parents — there are far too many of them — who hear God telling them that they have to kill their children. They're free to believe that, but I think everybody agrees that the civil law can step in and prevent them from acting on that belief. So the belief is unlimited, but the action is limited and can be limited by our laws.

That brings us to the second line.

Right. Where is it permissible for the government or the law to step in and stop that action, religiously motivated or otherwise? The answer here is pretty simple as well: where the rights of others begin. Your right to swing your fist, as the old legal adage says, ends where the other person's nose begins. It's the same thing with your religion: Your right to swing your religion or your rosary or whatever it is ends where the rights of others begin. Put another way, religious freedom is not a license to infringe on any other person's rights.

And then finally line three: church and state.

I think line three is pretty easy too. This line has been under assault for longer than the crusade has been in existence. I think the example here that's useful is a citizen who wants to pray. Citizens are free to pray all they want, that's line one. They're free to pray all they want, so long as that prayer doesn't infringe on somebody else's rights. Perhaps praying on someone else's property might not be OK, but they can even pray on public property, that's religious freedom too.

But they don't get to broadcast that prayer over a government PA system, for instance, because then they are using the power of the state to impose their religion on everybody else. Similarly, they don't get to use an office of the government, a position as governor or president, for instance, to impose that prayer on everybody else. I think the thing that is really important is that this line protects religious freedom. Mr. Johnson might pray every night, but Sheriff Johnson can't lead prayers at staff meetings or with prisoners. That's an abuse of power and sadly, the abuses of power in this context are pretty common.

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We will decry the similar abuses of power when a politician uses their official power to line their pockets or sexually harass staff or benefit partisan political campaigns. But when the abuse of power promotes Christianity, people tend to be silent, and I think it's really crucial that people understand this: Every American has a right to a secular government as a matter of personal religious liberty.

In Chapter 4, you take the case of the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue a marriage license to David Emerald and David Moore. What do the different lines tell us about that case?

First, I think it's obvious that Kim Davis can believe whatever bigoted beliefs she wants about marriage, be they biblicaly accurate or otherwise. But when she is acting as a county clerk — and that is the only way that she has the power to issue these licenses —she is bound by other rules, including line number three. She doesn't get to use the power of that secular office to impose her personal religious beliefs on other people. That's not a question of religious liberty. It's a question of line number three. It's a question of the separation of church and state.

This is actually, in my opinion, a pretty basic and easy case, and it was complicated or blown up, we might say, turned into a circus by one of the crusaders in that case, Liberty Counsel. So again, line No. 1 says she's free to believe whatever she wants. Line No. 2 says that belief is not a license to act, and in that case she was denying other people their rights. That couple had a right under the law to be married, and Davis was violating that right using her official power. So she trespassed on line No. 2 and she trespassed on line No. 3.

The next case you take is Masterpiece Cakeshop. You note that the widespread unfamiliarity with civil rights was read into thousands of bad gotcha analogies. That's critical because the crusaders want to use religious freedom to undermine civil rights. So what basics are involved in making it an easy case to decide, as opposed to all the bad analogies?

So with Masterpiece Cakeshop, it's really crucial for people to understand how our civil rights laws function, because a lot of these religious freedom cases seek a license to trespass on those civil rights laws. It's a measure of how far this crusade has come, because those arguments have been around since the Civil Rights Act was passed in the '60s. One of the first challenges to the Civil Rights Act at the Supreme Court tried to argue that it contravenes the will of God and the religious freedom of business owners, and the Supreme Court laughed that argument off in a footnote. That is where we were and now we have the Supreme Court seriously entertaining these arguments and possibly in the future deciding one of these in favor of business owners.

But the way public accommodation civil rights laws often work is that they list classes of people that are protected under the law, and often these are minorities that have faced discrimination in the past. So we often are protecting people on the basis of race or creed or color or sexual orientation or national origin. Different states in different civil rights laws protect different groups of people. But what they all do is to establish clear rights for those particular people, which is important because when you're talking about line No. 2, you don't have a license to violate somebody else's rights.

So you have three clear things for there to be a good analogy under any of the civil rights laws. There has to be a protected class that's actually protected. It has to involve a business — usually referred to as a "place of public accommodation" — and then you have to have a service that business provides generally, but is denying to people in the protected class. A lot of the gotcha analogies that we saw just completely missed those things.

One of my favorites was forcing a kosher deli to serve bacon. That's never going to happen, because that's not a question of discrimination. Kosher delis don't serve bacon in the first place. No law is going to turn around and force them to. But if a kosher deli serves sandwiches to folks, then it has to serve them to everybody equally under those protected classes.

In this case, you wrote: "The Supreme Court should have reiterated Line #2 in this case. Sorry, bakery, your owner's religion does not trump the rights of others. Done." But that's not what happened, because Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote an opinion about the alleged "hostility toward religion." You later say that there's a trio of cases that shows the evolution of this idea of hostility in religious freedom cases, of which this was one. Describe that evolution and what it shows.

It's really important to understand that there was no hostility in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. That was completely manufactured by Kennedy and the Supreme Court. A really good example of genuine hostility occurs in Chapter 6 of the book, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. You have what can only be described as a mob scene in the town in an effort to shut down a Santería church that was trying to open there. I tell the story of this city council meeting where you have the police chaplain — which is a whole other thing — and members of the city council saying, "What can we do to prevent this church from opening?" and members of the public talking about how the city needs to shut the church down.

So you have very clear hostility from government officials acting in their official capacity toward a minority religion, and then the city council goes on to pass all of these laws that effectively outlaw the practice of Santería in the city. They did what the Supreme Court at the time — they got this case right — called a religious gerrymander. Animal sacrifice was one of the sacred rites of Santería and the city outlawed it, just as a religious practice, but still allowed, for instance, exterminators to kill animals and vets to euthanize animals, still allowed kosher slaughterhouses to exist. So it was very clear that the laws they were passing targeted this one particular religion for suppression.

So where did it go from there in terms of the next cases?

So that case lay dormant for quite a while. Actually Justice Kennedy wrote the decision in that Santería case, and then the next time it crops up, that I mention, is in the case of Donald Trump's Muslim ban. So you have Kennedy writing a concurring opinion in that case too, and there's a difference. Religious liberty in the Santería case is clearly this shield to protect a hated and stigmatized religious minority from the hostility of the majority. And then, in the case of the Muslim ban, you have the court using it as a cudgel to advance conservative Christianity.

I don't think it could be any clearer that that opinion permitted hostility against Muslims across the world, and actually favored immigration for Christians, which a lot of people tend to forget. Even though that hostility was very clear, very openly stated, the Supreme Court essentially ignored it. I think it's a nearly perfect analogy to the Santería case. But for this court, for the modern Supreme Court under John Roberts, they didn't care when it came to hostility against minorities.

But with just a few weeks' difference in time we get the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where the Supreme Court allows a business to discriminate in the name of Christianity, at the same time as it is allowing the government to ban immigration of Muslims. To me it is one of the most striking examples of how this court is trying to favor Christianity and use religious freedom to enshrine Christian privilege into our Constitution.

Employment Division v. Smith was a major case that led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. What happened in that case, and what happened as a result?

This is such a complicated history. There's been so much misinformation piled up over the years. I think the simplest way to tell the Smith case is that counselors employed at a private drug counseling organization were fired for using drugs. The question in the case is: Does religious freedom require the state to pay unemployment benefits to private drug counselors who took drugs and were therefore fired for cause?

Now that's a pretty easy question to answer. I think it's pretty uncontroversial that it is perfectly acceptable for private organizations to say that drug counselors can't do drugs and keep their jobs. But it got complicated so much along the way, and up to this day, in part because Justice Scalia wrote a couple of paragraphs in the opinion that were far out of balance. He had a venomous pen and loved to use it, and here he essentially dared Congress to act. There were so many other explosive factors that went into this case, although the fact is that it was drug counselors who took drugs and were then fired for doing that led us to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that Congress passed.

So what's the arc from that response to its problems becoming apparent with the Hobby Lobby case?

Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is essentially a constitutional amendment. It certainly oversteps its authority; it's been called a super-statute. It cuts through every other law, and that is also known as a constitutional amendment, which should have gone through the proper amendment procedures in Article VII, but didn't. Since then we have seen the crusaders abusing RFRA, as it's known, to advance their crusade. The idea was that, first, we'll get our weaponized understanding of religious freedom into this federal law, and once we've done that we'll graft it onto the First Amendment of the Constitution, and we will no longer need RFRA. There are so many problems with that, too. RFRA restores — that's the key phrase — it restores religious discrimination and Christian supremacy.

So how does that lead to the Hobby Lobby case?

After RFRA passed, there were a whole bunch of state versions. As with the federal RFRA a lot of people agreed that they were necessary, but when you start getting into the 2010s people start to wake up to the dangers these laws pose, especially to things like the Affordable Care Act, to public accommodation laws, to all sorts of civil rights laws. By the early 2010s you have this divide where conservatives are pushing for RFRAs as a way to weaponize religious freedom, and liberals, progressives and other activists are fighting against those RFRAs. That divide comes to a head in 2014 with the Hobby Lobby case, which was brought under RFRA and really begins the onslaught of this crusade.

There were a flurry of COVID-related cases with the court ignoring precedents that go back 100 years. What happened there, and how did that break with precedent come about?

There's so many problems with the COVID cases, from how they were brought in this expedited shadow docket to how they were decided to the utter ignorance and denigration of medical expertise and science. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of American churches, especially the more conservative churches, attacking public health measures. The coronavirus seems to haunt churches; worship services are almost designed to be super-spreader events. I go over a number of these haunting examples in the book, where you get primary spread, secondary spread and even tertiary spread among people who go to church, then bring the virus home to their family members, who spread it at their workplaces.

If you look at the evolution of the cases, two things become clear. One is that labeling some businesses, such as grocery stores, "essential" and labeling medical care "essential," while labeling others as "nonessential," was taken as an affront by a lot of the crusaders, including the crusaders on the Supreme Court. And they took not extending the "essential" label to churches as an affront, as did Trump. I wonder in the book whether, if we had chosen a different label, we would have seen such a backlash against these public health measures.

The second thing that becomes clear is that Amy Coney Barrett proved absolutely pivotal to the crusade here. There is a very clear inflection point in this area of law, where Chief Justice Roberts, though he is a crusader himself, was not willing to allow the crusade to help spread a pandemic, at least not right away, and Justice Barrett absolutely was. Because once she gets on the court, all of a sudden our 100 years of precedent in this area is overturned.

And the precedent here, I should say, is absolutely clear. Your religious belief, your right to go to church, your right to exercise a religious belief does not include the right to spread a lethal pandemic. That's line No. 2. Your rights don't include the right to infect others with a lethal pandemic and possibly kill them. But once Amy Coney Barrett was put on the court — jammed onto the court, shotgunned onto the court — all of that changed. Not because the law changed, but because the personnel on the Supreme Court changed.

In chapter 15, on religious freedom and "segregation academies," you trace the modern concept of school vouchers back to their origins in the "massive resistance" to school desegregation. How do the current legal battles relate to those earlier ones? What do we need to know about them to clearly see what's going on now?

I think there's a couple of important things. I think this is absolutely crucial, especially when you look back at things like Masterpiece Cakeshop and some of the other cases the Supreme Court has decided recently. The court has said that hostility toward religion, at any point in any law, means that law should be struck down. That's where the court is evolving. Yet in the context of school vouchers or school choice or any of these newly created neo-voucher systems that we're seeing crop up all over the country — which all trace back directly to clear attempts to maintain segregation — the Supreme Court has no problem with upholding those policies and practices. They're more than willing to allow the privatization of education to continue even if the privatization actually furthers segregation, which we know for a fact happens.

This is to me one of the more appalling aspects of this crusade. There is a deliberate assault on public education in this country, and it is being aided by the crusaders and the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the quotes I share in the book makes a point that I think a lot of people don't realize. It's not just an attempt to push for vouchers. It's not just an attempt to privatize education. It's also an attempt to destroy public education, and Jerry Falwell was explicit on this point when he said he hoped "to see the day when . . . we don't have public schools. The churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them." Kyle Olson, who created National School Choice Week, said that he thought "Jesus would destroy the public education temple." So this is part of a deliberate push to destroy our public schools, and it's rooted in the value of equality that the Supreme Court upheld in Brown vs Board of Education.

In Chapter 6 you write about Fulton v. Philadelphia, the same-sex foster parents case where the court reached a unanimous decision. Explain what that case was about and what you think the liberals missed in going along with it?

I think it's kind of a sleeper case, or rather a sleeper opinion. in a way a lot of people don't understand, part;y because of John Roberts' trick here and partly because of how bad this case could be for the future.

Philadelphia wanted to ensure that its citizens were treated equally. The city itself did not want to discriminate and did not want to ask its taxpayer funds to fund discrimination. It also has the duty to care for children who are in dangerous situations. There are something like 6,000 foster children in Philadelphia who need help and need homes. So the city doesn't want to discriminate, but Catholic Social Services does, and Catholic Social Services had contracted with the city to do some administrative duties of the foster care system, including vetting children for foster care. Catholic Social Services told Philadelphia, "We are not going to vet any caregivers who are LGBTQ. Our God says we don't have to do that."

Just to be clear, Catholic Social Services refused to do the job it was contracted and paid to do, and the city then terminated its contract for foster care vetting. It still contracted with CSS to do a bunch of other stuff where it wasn't going to engage in that kind of discrimination or bigotry, but at bottom CSS refused to do the job it was paid to do, and it sued. It claimed a religious-freedom right to contract with the city to take that taxpayer money and then to discriminate in the name of its God. And the Supreme Court decided — as you pointed out, unanimously — people need to grasp that in this case all nine members of the Supreme Court sanctioned discrimination against a minority in the name of God, taxpayer-funded discrimination, and that really ought to shock us all.

You call it a sleeper case. Why?

It's a sleeper case in that a lot of people think it had a minor impact, and that was probably why the liberals on the court joined. Roberts based his opinion, basically, on a technicality. It reads like the court was looking for a loophole or a technical formality, to avoid making the big decision in the case. But what Roberts effectively said was that unless a law applies to everyone all the time, anybody who claims religious freedom is exempt from that law.

This is really hard for the average person to understand, but every law we have has some exemptions and exceptions and deliberate loopholes, because we don't necessarily want the law to apply to absolutely every single person. What Roberts has said, then, is effectively that every single law in the country now must exempt people who make a religious-freedom claim against it. So if you take it back to the Smith case, that unemployment law was riddled with exceptions, meaning that that case would have come out the other way under Roberts' reading. And that's essentially what the court did in one of the COVID decisions early on. But I don't think people really grasp how big a deal that is, and how much that torpedoes the rule of law and puts the rule of conservative Christianity in its place.

Can you elaborate on that? You argue that by allowing religious exceptions, you're essentially destroying the rule of law. You're erasing at least the second of the three lines, and possibly even the first.

A question I ask throughout the book is: What is the worst that could happen in this case? For instance, in the Kim Davis case, she still gets to go to church, she still gets to pray, she still gets to issue marriage licenses, she still gets to keep her job. She just doesn't get to use the power of her office to impose her religion on other people. What's the worst that would have happened in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case? A business that is incorporated and has all kinds of liability shields under the state law of Colorado would be required to follow other state laws of Colorado. These cases rarely involve a real violation of religious freedom.

But let's ask a different question: What's the worst that could happen with weaponized religious freedom? Because that's what the Crusaders are seeking, and that's what we're getting in a lot of these cases, and the answer really is alarming. Because the rule of law does disappear. The Supreme Court actually wrote about this 150 years ago. They asked what would happen if we allowed everybody to follow the rule of their God instead of the rule of law, and essentially what they said was that everyone would become "a law unto himself," and government could exist only in name in such circumstances. In a system that values one individual's right to act on any belief, there is no law. There is only what the individual believes their God commands. So we will have traded the rule of law for the rule of each conservative Christian's personal God. I don't think people quite realize how dangerous that is.

So what needs to be done in response?

I do get into some solutions to this problem in the book, and I hope the window is still open for those possible solutions. But I think it's very clear that our Supreme Court has been hijacked by the crusaders. The crusade depends on Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and Leonard Leo cheating and stealing and packing the courts to put their collaborators in place and that requires an immediate fix. We need to expand and rebalance the Supreme Court.

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

I think the most important question is why? Why is there a crusade to weaponize religious freedom? A lot of people may recognize that there's this attempt to pervert the meaning of religious freedom, to turn this hallowed protection into a sword. But I don't think a lot of people understand why. This is a question that I really try to get at in the book. I think it's pretty clear that the goal here is to elevate conservative Christianity above the law, while disfavoring nonreligious and non-Christian citizens.

This is a weapon to codify privilege and supremacy. But the answer to the "why" question is that it's largely a backlash against equality realized. Conservative Christianity was once able to discriminate on the basis of race, and now that's largely unthinkable. Conservative Christianity was once able to legally subjugate half the population, and that's not really possible now. Conservative Christianity was once able to discriminate against LGBTQ people, but now it isn't. As more people realize the rights that are due them by virtue of being human, the sphere of religious imposition shrinks, and the crusade is seeking to reclaim that lost ground. Really, when you get down to it, this is about a dominant caste that is waning in cultural status and is desperately trying to cling to that privilege and supremacy. They are using the First Amendment and religious freedom to try and do that.

How Justice Antonin Scalia created this chaos

A string of recent election results — including the Kansas abortion amendment and special elections for House seats in New York and Alaska — make it clear that the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade has enormous political consequences, and could even end up preserving the Democrats' hold on Congress this year. But the court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization wasn't the only earth-shaking break with precedent in the last two weeks of its term. Even if Democrats do hold onto Congress and somehow codify Roe into law (an unlikely set of outcomes) that would only affect one aspect of the vast sweep of policy change the court's rulings portend.

This article first appeared in Salon.

The new book by UC Berkeley Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky, "Worse Than Nothing: The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism," shows how fundamental those changes could be and focuses on the bogus legal reasoning known as "originalism," which plays such a crucial role in justifying this sudden and sweeping assertion of judicial power.

Originalists claim to be guided by the original meaning of the Constitution and argue that everyone else is swayed by their own subjective values in groping for other kinds of reasoning. Chemerinsky, as it happens, has first-hand experience in drafting a constitution of sorts. He chaired the Los Angeles Charter Commission, an elected body that rewrote the charter for the second-largest city in the U.S. (in collaboration with a parallel appointed body) just over 20 years ago. So his argument that originalists' key claims about constitutional meaning are simply false carries significant weight. Even while writing the L.A. charter, Chemerinsky says, there often wasn't one unanimously agreed-upon meaning for its specific language, and that was even less true after the fact. Over the course of the last 20 years, he reports, questions have arisen that weren't even considered in the drafting process.

There's considerable evidence that the same was true of the Constitution written in Philadelphia 235 years ago as well, but none of the framers are still around to confirm that. Chemerinsky doesn't use his personal experience as the central argument of his book, but it clearly underscores the gap between the sweeping claims made by originalists and the granular, often difficult-to-discern nature of constitutional reality. That should make all of us willing and eager to seek understanding from a variety of different approaches and points of view. which is what the vast majority of judges have done throughout most of our constitutional history.

Much of Chemerinsky's book is devoted to explaining the five biggest problems that originalists face, any one of which is arguably fatal to their dogmatic claims. The argument mentioned above is part of the epistemological problem, meaning the impossibility of finding a single fixed meaning that simply does not exist. What's just as bad is the abhorrence problem, meaning that sometimes the original meaning of the Constitution is clear enough, but the results of an "originalist" interpretation would be morally abhorrent to most Americans today. Then there's the incoherence problem: If originalism is the correct approach, then originalism itself must be written into the Constitution. But it isn't, and Chemerinsky concludes that the only true originalist position, paradoxically or otherwise, is to reject strict originalism.

Chemerinsky explores these and two other problems in five central chapters of his book, while also providing a historical introduction and a discussion of why originalism is attractive to so many conservatives. Ultimately, he argues forcefully for an alternative view, a more pluralistic approach that seeks understanding from different sources, as judges have been doing for hundreds if not thousands of years. He concludes with a reflection on the dangers that originalism poses to the rights and freedoms that Americans today have come to cherish or, perhaps foolishly, have taken for granted.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The title of your book, "Worse Than Nothing," is a direct response to Justice Antonin Scalia's claim that whatever originalism's faults may be, he had a theory, while the critics of originalism had nothing. Before digging into the details, what's your bottom-line response to this claim?

As the title suggests, I think originalism is a very dangerous approach to constitutional law, and in this instance I think it really is worse than nothing.

The core of your book lays out five key problems with originalism, but you begin by describing its rise in the first chapter and its allure in the second. What drove that rise and how did it proceed?

In large part it was the conservative political movement that drove originalism. The Federalist Society embraced originalism, and nurtured a belief in it. Also, I think it was simply about who has won elections. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016 and if she had replaced Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Ginsburg, we wouldn't be talking about originalism today. It would be a fringe theory on the Supreme Court that a group of conservative law professors kept alive. But Trump appointed three conservatives, joining conservatives who were already there, and that is causing originalism to be in the ascendancy.

Why is originalism worrying, and how does this echo the 19th-century dominance of the legal doctrine known as "formalism"?

I think it's a simplistic theory. It says, "We don't want judges to impose their own values. We want judges to discover the law and mechanically apply it." That's formalism, which has always had an intuitive appeal, because it seems to take out of decision-making individual biases, preferences and ideology. So originalists say, "We're going to discover the original meaning of the constitutional provision and apply it. These other people are all making it up, imposing their own values."

The first of the key problems you tackle is the epistemological problem. You begin by talking about your experience as chair of the elected L.A. Charter Commission. How did that experience illuminate the problem of determining meaning in the Constitution?

Some scholars have persuasively argued that the framers of the Constitution didn't believe in originalism, and therefore if one is to follow the framers' intent or the original understanding, one has to abandon originalism.

A charter for a city in California is much like its Constitution. It creates the institutions of government, it allocates power and it even provides more protection of rights than exist under federal or state law. I went through the two-year experience of chairing a commission to draft the charter and inevitably, issues of interpretation arose. They came up soon after the charter was adopted, and they continue to arise now. Just yesterday I got a memo concerning certain issues in the Los Angeles charter that are much in the news. What I have discovered was that, almost always, the issues that are arising now are ones that we didn't consider then, even though the "then" was very recent. And when we did consider them, there was a difference of opinion about what we intended and what we meant.

The reason this informs me is that, if we couldn't decide the original meaning of the charter right after it was adopted, when all the commissioners were then still alive, how can we do so for a constitution that was written in 1787?

One of the key problems in establishing "original meaning" is the level of abstraction. How does shifting the level of abstraction change the meaning?

If the original meaning of the constitutional provision is stated at a very abstract level, then any result can be justified. At the most abstract level, the Constitution is about liberty and equality, separation of powers. But the constraint that originalists purport to get is gone when the original meaning is stated in a very abstract way. On the other hand, if we focus on the original meaning at a very concrete and specific level, then the Constitution becomes unacceptable. Then Brown v. Board of Education [on school desegregation] was wrongly decided, Loving v. Virginia [on interracial marriage] was wrongly decided.

In Chapter 4, "The Incoherence Problem," you argue that there's no indication the Constitution meant to create judicial review, much less originalist judicial review, and in fact that there's evidence to the contrary. So an originalist reading actually requires abandoning originalism. Can you elaborate on that?

An originalist would say that all aspects of the Constitution are to be determined by its original meaning. That would have to include the question of whether there should be the power of judicial review at all. In fact, the text of the Constitution says nothing about the power of judicial review, and it wasn't explicitly discussed at the Constitutional Convention. It would seem, then, that from an originalist perspective there shouldn't even be judicial review. But if there is judicial review, then how, from an originalist's perspective, should courts go about interpreting the Constitution? Scholars such as Jeff Powell at Duke have, I think, persuasively argued that the framers of the Constitution didn't believe in originalism, and therefore if one is to follow the framers' intent or the original understanding of the Constitution, one has to abandon originalism.

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In Chapter 5, "The Abhorrence Problem," you focus on three repugnant results of originalism: If we go by clear and original intention, then segregation and racial discrimination generally are permissible, for example, and the First Amendment allows government to prohibit blasphemy and seditious libel. I'd like to focus on the first example. because it involves the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. You quote from Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion, which explicitly rejected originalism. Talk about the originalists' problem with the Brown decision — how they try to deal with it and how they fail.

The central problem with Brown, from an originalist perspective, is that the result can't be justified under originalism. The same Congress that voted to ratify the 14th Amendment also voted to segregate the District of Columbia public schools. There's no indication whatsoever that Congress, in proposing the 14th Amendment — or the states, in ratifying it — saw it as outlawing segregation. Brown v. Board of Education was first argued to the Supreme Court in the October term of 1952. The justices couldn't come to a decision and asked for re-argument, focusing on the intent of the framers with regard to segregation. Those briefs were filed, the case was re-argued and then Chief Justice Warren, writing for the unanimous court, said, "We can't focus on originalism, we can't turn the clock back. Education plays a far different role in society today than it did in 1868."

From an originalist perspective, the result of Brown v. Board of Education can't be justified. There's no indication whatsoever that Congress saw the 14th Amendment as outlawing segregation.

Originalists try to get around this embarrassment in some ways. They try to state the goal of equal protection at an abstract enough level that Brown becomes permissible — but then originalism becomes indistinguishable from non-originalism. There's another attempt at this: The most famous one is by Stanford Law professor Michael McConnell in the Virginia Law Review, where he points especially to a statute adopted in 1875 that outlawed segregation. There are many problems with McConnell's approach. As he himself concedes in the article, there's no evidence that when Congress ratified the 14th Amendment, it meant to outlaw segregation. Also, 1875 is not 1868, when the 14th Amendment was adopted. There's no reason to believe that what they did in adopting a statute in 1875 is the same as what they meant to accomplish with a constitutional provision.

In chapter 6, "The Modernity Problem," you highlight three issues. Two of those deal with specific kinds of technological development — surveillance and communication — and one is much broader, the question of how the country's growth in size and complexity changes how it must be governed. Can you address both of those? Pick one of the technological developments to talk about and then take up the broader problem of growth, and explain how originalism fails to deal with these developments.

When the Constitution was ratified and the Fourth Amendment was adopted, it was thought that a search required a physical intrusion by the police. When the Supreme Court first defined a search, it wasn't until 1928, in Olmstead v. U.S., when the court said that wiretapping was not a "search" if it's done without going on somebody's premises. That makes no sense in terms of the current methods of police gathering information.

One of the most important recent Fourth Amendment cases was Carpenter v. U.S. in 2018, where the police obtained 127 days of cellular location information about a person and used it as key evidence in a prosecution that led to a sentence of 100 years. There was no physical trespass on a property, but it was an enormous invasion of privacy. When we look at other technology that exists now for police to accomplish searches — drones, surveillance airplanes, cameras on utility poles that monitor was going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week — it makes no sense to think of the Fourth Amendment solely as about physical trespass. The Supreme Court found in Carpenter that obtaining that cellular location information was a search, but Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, who are originalists, said it should take an invasion of property rights to count as a search. That just doesn't make sense when the government now can gather so much information without a physical trespass.

In terms of the growth in the size of the country, the United States in 1787 was 13 states. There was nothing like the methods of transportation or communication that exists today, so there could be a very small federal government. But in our modern technological world, the country spans the continent and includes territory as far away as Guam and Saipan. We need a government that has the tools to be able to deal with this. So the Thomas approach, which would radically limit federal government power, makes no sense in the current world.

Expansion of the federal government dates back to the 1870s, at least. How has that balance changed over time and how has the reasoning about it shifted?

The size of the federal government has dramatically expanded as the country has expanded, as technology has developed, as the problems become more complex. In 1787, the framers wouldn't have thought of the need to have an Environmental Protection Agency to deal with the problem of pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. Today, climate change and greenhouse emissions, imperil human life on the planet. So we need a government that has the tools to deal with the problems that we face. Unfortunately, the conservatives on the court, following originalism, have a very narrow view of congressional power. Justice Thomas, especially, would greatly limit the federal government's authority to deal with key social problems.

You write about the court striking down regulation during the New Deal, and then doing very little of that for generations, until just recently. What can we learn from that history?

The Supreme Court declared some key New Deal legislation unconstitutional for delegating too much power to the executive branch. The last time the Supreme Court invalidated a federal law as an improper delegation of power was in 1935. Now I think we have a majority on the court that wants to revive the non-delegation doctrine. They've also created something new called the "major questions" doctrine, saying that an agency can't rule on a major question of economic or political significance unless Congress gives clear direction. This is a sibling to the non-delegation doctrine. In fact, on June 30, 2022, in West Virginia v. EPA, the Supreme Court limited the EPA's power to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants, using the major questions doctrine.

In Chapter 7 you deal with the hypocrisy problem, meaning that conservatives abandon originalism when it doesn't suit their purposes. Because of its central importance, I'd like to focus on the invalidation of the Voting Rights Act, which was not grounded in original intent or meaning. How do you explain what happened?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the most important laws adopted in my lifetime. It dealt with pervasive, long-standing disenfranchisement of voters of color, especially Black voters. In section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, it prohibits state and local governments from election practices or systems that discriminate based on race. But Congress knew that authorizing lawsuits to challenge race discrimination wouldn't be sufficient. Congress was aware that Southern states kept changing the voting practices to disenfranchise minority voters, and decided to create a preventative mechanism. Section 5 of the act said that jurisdictions with a history of race discrimination in voting had to get pre-approval or "pre-clearance" from the attorney general or a three-judge federal court before changing their election system.

Chief Justice Roberts said the Voting Rights Act violated the principle of "equal state sovereignty." But where is this found in the Constitution? Nowhere.

This provision was tremendously effective. There were hundreds of instances where pre-clearance was denied and there were thousands where state or level governments didn't even try because they knew they wouldn't get pre-clearance. This was enacted and upheld as constitutional, and when it was scheduled to expire it was re-enacted in 1982 for another 25 years. Then, when it was scheduled to expire in 2007, Congress held over 15 hearings and compiled a legislative history of over 10,000 pages documenting a continued need for pre-clearance. Congress then extended pre-clearance for another 25 years. It passed the Senate 98-0. There were only 33 "no" votes in the House. George W. Bush signed it into law.

But in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, the Court declared the pre-clearance law unconstitutional. What constitutional principle or provision did the Voting Rights Act violate? Chief Justice Roberts said it violated the principle of "equal state sovereignty," which holds that Congress must treat all states alike. But where is this found in the Constitution? Nowhere. It doesn't say that. In terms of original meaning, the same Congress that ratified the 14th Amendment also voted to segregate the District of Columbia public schools. In fact, the same Congress that ratified the 14th Amendment imposed military rule on Southern states, showing it didn't believe in equal state sovereignty.

After laying out all those arguments, you move into a threefold affirmative defense of non-originalism. I'd like to ask you to elaborate a bit on each of those arguments. The first one being that a pluralist epistemology is desirable.

My argument is that throughout American history, the Supreme Court has looked at many sources. Of course it looks at the text of the Constitution, it always was looking at the original meaning. It should look at history, look at precedents, look at modern social needs. I think to ignore any of those is undesirable. Why believe that all wisdom stopped in 1787, when the Constitution was adopted? Or when the Bill of Rights was adopted? Why not believe that there is wisdom to be gained from all of these different sources? That's my argument: It's desirable for the court not to be limited just to historical original meaning.

Your second argument is that a living Constitution that evolves by interpretation as well as amendment is desirable.

I think a preeminent purpose of the Constitution is to safeguard minorities of all sorts. Yet I think it is very difficult for the Constitution to do that unless there is evolution by interpretation. We shouldn't require a supermajority to protect the rights of minorities. Let me give you an example. We've already talked about Brown v. Board of Education, which would not have been decided in the same way under originalism. Loving v. Virginia, where the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, wouldn't have been decided the same way under originalism. Using the Constitution to combat sex discrimination wouldn't work under originalism. Using the Constitution to combat sexual-orientation discrimination — the right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians — wouldn't work that way under originalism. It makes no sense to me to say that those changes can happen only through the amendment process. Then you're saying a minority can be constitutionally protected only if it has a supermajority behind it.

Finally, you argue that candor and transparency in constitutional decisions are desirable.

I think what originalists do is to impose their conservative values and then hide behind the originalist rhetoric to claim that they're just following the original meaning. I think that conservatives, as much as liberals, are imposing their values on constitutional decisions. Consider the cases in June of 2022. The book was finished in the summer of 2021, so it doesn't cover these. But the conservatives on the court found that there's no constitutional right to abortion, that there's very broad protection of gun rights, that there is a right of teachers to pray at high school football games and that the state is obligated to support parochial school education in certain circumstances. All of that is consistent with current Republican conservative ideology. It's not that the framers of 1787 to 1791 thought the same way as the current Republican Party. Conservatives are just imposing their values.

So what I say is: Let's all be transparent. Let's acknowledge that the court is making value judgments. No one should hide behind the guise of originalism.

It strikes me that all these arguments are important, because without honest argument, everything else is suspect. You frame it as "candor and transparency," but at bottom isn't it simply about honesty?

Yes. I think there is a dishonesty, a disingenuousness, in conservatives pretending that they're just following the original meaning and not making value choices. They're making value choices just as much as any liberal justice would.

Chapter 9 is titled "Why We Should Be Afraid." You focus on three areas where dramatic changes should be expected from originalist judges. Say a little bit about each of those. The first area is about rights of privacy and autonomy.

Originalists are imposing conservative values and hiding behind their originalist rhetoric. ... What I say is: Let's all be transparent. Let's acknowledge that the court is making value judgments.

As I mentioned, I finished the book in the summer of 2021. What I predict in the book that given the originalist views of the court in the conservative justices, that the court would overrule Roe v. Wade. It did that on June 24 in the Dobbs decision, where Justice Alito said that a right should be protected under the Constitution only within the text, part of the original meaning or to safeguard a long unbroken tradition. Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he said the court should now overrule Griswold v. Connecticut, which allowed purchase of contraceptives; Lawrence v. Texas, which established the right of consenting adults to engage in private same-sex sexual activity; and Obergefell v. Hodges, where the court found a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians. I think if one follows an originalist view, that is the conclusion. All of these rights protecting privacy and autonomy are endangered.

The second area concerns the scope of congressional power.

Originalists like Justice Thomas believe the federal government has very limited authority, but that doesn't work in the world of 2022. We need the federal government to be able to deal with things like air pollution and climate change, or technology. I worry that what we're going to see from the conservative justices is significant constraints on federal power to deal with urgent social problems.

Finally, the third area is about the Constitution's religion clauses.

Again, I finished the book in the summer of 2021, but I predicted you'd see aggressive protection of free exercise of religion. And we saw it at the end of June 2022 in Carson vs Makin, where the Supreme Court said that whenever the government gives aid for private secular education, the government is constitutionally required, even mandated, to provide that aid for religious education. The court said in Kennedy v. Bremerton Schools that a high school football coach had the First Amendment right to go onto the field after games and engage in prayer, even when joined by teammates and members of other teams. I think we're going to see in the next term rulings on the ability to violate anti-discrimination laws, based on free speech and religion.

Given all of the above, what conclusions do you draw about how the public should respond? What do we do?

I think it's important to see, when it comes to the Supreme Court, that it's an emperor with no clothes. It's a conservative court, it's conservative justices imposing their conservative values. It's not about originalism at all. They write opinions in terms of originalism, but we should see that as the fig leaf to cover what's really going on — conservative justices imposing conservative values.

It seems that you have a pluralistic approach to law, and to epistemology as well. You argue that there's no one right way to do things, no determinate outcome, but that a tradition can evolve out of diverse views coming into conflict with with some kind of self-regulation. That pluralism seems inherent in a liberal as opposed to conservative view of the nature of human knowledge and law. Do you have any broader thoughts about that?

Let me take an example. The Second Amendment says, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Do gun control laws violate that? If the government says that people need a concealed weapons permit, or if the government prohibits handguns, does it violate that? It depends on how you want to read the Second Amendment. If you read it as primarily about militia service, then those government regulations are allowed. If you read it as being about the right of individuals to keep and bear arms, those regulations aren't allowed. There's not an inherently right or wrong answer to the question. It's a choice.

It shouldn't surprise us the conservatives who embrace gun rights strike down gun control laws and liberals who favor gun control would uphold those laws. It's not about neutral methodology, but value choices by who's on the court. Virtually all constitutional provisions get litigated. There are arguments on both sides, and it's a mistake to think there's a right answer out there, waiting to be discovered.

I always like to end by asking: What's the most important question that I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

I think the most important question to ask is: What should we expect in the future? It's likely we're going to have a Supreme Court that is highly originalist for a long time to come. You look at the conservative justices: Clarence Thomas is 74, Samuel Alito is 72, John Roberts is 67, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett are all in their 50s. So the rise of originalism that we've seen on the Supreme Court is likely to be followed for many years to come.

Doesn't this argue for the need to think about court expansion and other possible reforms, such as term limits? Elie Mystal of the Nation has suggested expanding the Supreme Court to the size of a district court, so you have a panel system that would decentralize its power.

I favor expanding the size of the Supreme Court. I think the current court is a result of Republican court packing — blocking Merrick Garland and rushing through Amy Coney Barrett. I think we're not going to see an expansion in the size of the Supreme Court, because we know Republicans would filibuster that in the Senate and there aren't the votes among Democrats to remove the filibuster.

I favor 18-year nonrenewable terms for justices. Too much depends on the accident of history and when vacancies occur, and life expectancy is a lot longer now than it was in 1787. Clarence Thomas was appointed to the court in 1991 when he was 43 years old. If he stays on the court until he's 90, he'll be a justice for 47 years. Amy Coney Barrett was 48 when she was confirmed. if she stays on the court until she's 87, the age that Justice Ginsburg was, she will be a justice until 2059. It's just too much power in too few people's hands for too long a period of time. But I don't think we're going to get 18-year term limits. I believe it would take a constitutional amendment and I don't see a constituency that cares enough to do the work.

I would oppose having a court with panels deciding cases. We have too much of a need for consistency and resolution, and I think when you have panels inevitably they disagree with one another. It would cause chaos.

How the right is winning the hashtag wars — and how the left can fight back

If you want to understand Donald Trump as a political actor, Jennifer Mercieca's book "Demagogue for President" (Salon interview here) remains the clearest, most illuminating explanation. But if you want to understand the larger story in which Trump plays a part — however large he may still loom at the moment — then Francesca Bolla Tripodi's new book "The Propagandists' Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy" offers a stark and clarifying picture of how Trump's political stage was constructed in the first place, and how that project may continue into the indefinite future, with or without Trump.

This article first appeared in Salon

Tripodi's subtitle calls attention to the central role of algorithmic manipulations in today's media environment, but her account is informed by history as well as her own ethnographic observations, so recent high-tech manipulations are situated in a much deeper and broader context. In 2017, Tripodi writes, she set out "to understand how conservative voters sought out information they felt they could trust. ... My goal was to better understand how Trump voters made sense of the contemporary news environment and how search engine optimization might play a role."

To research this, Tripodi immersed herself in with two representative groups in Virginia. "I had no intention of studying extremism," she writes. "I had no idea that the way information is tagged and categorized would take me into a media ecosystem fueled by conspiratorial logic. I did not expect the content in which I immersed myself to influence my own mindset, and I certainly did not expect to witness the violence of the Unite the Right rally."

She was, in short, greatly surprised by what she found: "Quite frankly, I did not realize how bad it already was, how bad it still could get, and how vulnerable we all are, myself included."

Yet there's a sure-footed quality to "The Propagandists' Playbook." However covert, sweeping and powerful the manipulations Tripodi explores may be, they do not disorient her account, and they need not disorient the rest of us either — with the help of her clear-eyed analysis. The book is organized as a set of seven "steps," and I chose largely to follow the chapter-to-chapter thread for clarity's sake in my conversation with her, which has been edited for clarity and length.

You organize "The Propagandists' Playbook" in a set of seven steps, and the first one is a commandment to "Know your audience." In that chapter you describe "the five F's of conservatism." What led you to that formulation, and what are they?

This book is based on research. I'm an ethnographic researcher, and I did months of research and interviews and content analysis of the news and information that people rely on. So I used grounded theory to identify pertinent themes and trends, and then based on those category I created this construct of the five F's of conservatism. I asked people to describe what they mean by "conservatism," and their definitions centered around these concepts over and over again, and these concepts were also central to the news and information that they were reading. So the five F's that I describe are faith, family, the armed forces — which constitutes the military and the police — firearms and a free market.

The second step is: "Build a network." As you describe it, this network has a long history, going back to the early days of radio, but only moved beyond radio in the 1980s and '90s as a result of the rise of televangelism and Reagan era deregulation, including repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. First of all, what is this network like today?

What's really important about understanding the network of right-wing information is that it's not just in one space. There's a lot of great research that looks at television or at ways that news and information travels online or thinks about YouTube or social media. What I demonstrate in my book is that these are highly interconnected forms of information, and that this has been going on for some time. Things that they write about in their news coverage or in books they would talk about on radio, and then that became television, and because they had a lot of practice at building this network, adding the layer of internet information was not too challenging. So it looks a lot like what it looked like since it started, with the exception that they have adapted to the ways that people get news and information in the 21st century.

Second, you studied the network through immersion in it, and you identified what you called two central conspiracy theories as a result.

One is that the left is dangerous — that those on the left are increasingly intolerant, scary, dangerous and disruptive to society. The other is that the media works in tandem with the left, and as a result the traditional media cannot be trusted. What's fascinating is these are also not new conspiracies. I show in my book how these notions of media distrust have been around since conservative media started, but the fear of the left being increasingly dangerous was really focused and emphasized in the 1960s, during the civil rights movement.

The third step is to "Engage in their form of media literacy," which you describe as founded in "scriptural inference." What does that mean, and why is it so central to how conservatives make sense of the world?

One thing I think is really important about my book is showing that conservatism is not just a worldview, it's also a media practice. Specifically, it's a form of media practice that leverages individual interpretation and emphasizes direct engagement with the literature. And whether that be the Bible or the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, or the memo that Trump released when he was being impeached the first time — his memo with [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy — this call to engage directly in the text is really rooted in the Protestant Reformation, specifically the Protestantism formed within the United States, which was about elevating individual interpretation in favor of an expert telling you what to do.

This form of media literacy, this way of interacting and engaging with the media is also the way conservative media talk to their audience. They don't just say, "Trust us, we know what we're doing." They actually activate this form of active inquiry, they utilize hermeneutical methods in their newscasts. You'll see this as a regular strategy that Tucker Carlson plays out. He'll put the quotes behind him that he wants people to focus on, and they leverage that form of media literacy. That's so important because it's different from the way other people, including progressives, engage with the media.

Step four is "Understand how information flows," and step five is "Set the traps." These are clearly closely connected, as you write that "Conservative elites … leverage a niche understanding of SEO strategies and methodologies to maximize the exposure of conservative brands, causes, and content." I'd like to ask about two specific examples you describe, and what they show us about the general strategies. The first involves Nellie Ohr, who was used to portray Trump as a victim of an attempted Democratic coup. What happened there, and what general strategies were involved?

Nellie Ohr is a great example of what I describe as "keyword curation" and "strategic signaling." The first part of understanding how information flows is not exclusive to conservative content creators. It's a basic understanding of how algorithms work, and what's important about that is to recognize that inputs — your keywords — are driving the output that any search engine's going to bring back to you.

How did Nellie Ohr, the wife of an obscure Justice Department official, become a "curated keyword" used to "perpetuate a conspiracy theory about an attempted coup" against Donald Trump?

So "Nellie Ohr" was this curated keyword that was adopted and essentially created leading up to and during Trump's first impeachment. Keyword curation works by relying on what scholars refer to as a data void: When little to nothing currently exists online, that hole or that gap can be easily filled with other content. Nellie Ohr is the wife of Bruce Ohr, who was a Department of Justice official at the time of Trump's impeachment. But because she worked at Fusion GPS — and Fusion GPS was behind the now clearly poorly-researched dossier — they created this whole narrative that the impeachment surrounding Trump's desire to have Ukraine interfere with the 2020 election was a way of unseating this president who was rightfully in power.

So a series of articles were written about Nellie Ohr, exclusively within the right-wing media ecosystem, and they all linked back to each other. A lot of them used the same copied-and-pasted text and made the same allegations, and then those same allegations were then covered by more mainstream outlets like Fox News. So during the impeachment trial, Rep. Devin Nunes used his time in his opening remarks to say, "We shouldn't be paying attention to this — what we should be paying attention to is Nellie Ohr." By activating this phrase, people were like, "Who is Nellie Ohr?" Then you go to Google and search for Nellie Ohr and the only thing returned is these conservative information systems that are perpetuating this conspiracy theory about an attempted coup to take out the president.

Could you say a bit more about the creation of data voids? I think that's a concept people are not generally aware of.

This comes out of Microsoft research: The notion of data voids is that sometimes there's not much existing on the internet around a subject or phrase. So data voids can get filled for a variety of reasons. Some of them can be filled by news coverage, for example. When a mass shooting happened in Sutherland Springs, Texas, no one had ever written about that town, and it was essentially a void: a Zillow listing and information about the population. So these voids, especially when there's a news event, are really ripe for bad information, because people are trying to get things out as quickly as possible and mistakes can happen. So that's one way a void gets filled.

The other way that voids get created and filled — we see this a lot in advertising — is that if you're trying to sell a product, you want to create a name for a product that doesn't already exist. Otherwise, if people search for your product, they're going to get the more established product. So they're taking this concept from advertising and applying it to news. So the data void is tied to problematic information in that if nothing exists online, it's easy to fill it with a bunch of information, especially if you have an already existing network of content creators.

The second example I'd like to ask about is the pushback against Black Lives Matter, which was a process in several steps. What happened there?

Black Lives Matter was the creation of activists who were trying to demonstrate the unfair treatment of Black people in the United States, in particular when it comes to crime and policing. What's fascinating is that you can see, using Google Trends data, that a way to respond to Black Lives Matter was to create alternative hashtags that could compete with it. So after #BlackLivesMatter rises you see the creation of #AllLivesMatter, which was trying to use this colorblind concept that everyone's equal so all lives should matter, not "just Black lives." Then that turned into #BlueLivesMatter, a catchphrase created to support the police and the armed forces, and not only did that activate the five forces of conservatism, but it also began to trend, it became a quick response to #BlackLivesMatter. We can see that it was created in response, because #BlueLivesMatter didn't exist before #BlackLivesMatter, according to Google Trends.

What did that creation sequence prove or demonstrate? You draw some conclusions — could you talk about the insights you gained from observing that?

A lot of times people will say, "This has nothing to do with #BlackLivesMatter, this is just talking about how these lives also matter." What you can see from the data is that if this was not a response to something, then it would have been created simultaneously with, or even before, the Black Lives Matter hashtag. The fact that it was lifted off the "lives matter" mantra and then appropriated for various groups activated those terms again whenever a Black person was killed by police. They were showing up very clearly in response to Black Lives Matter hashtags following extreme instances of police violence toward a Black person.

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This example of appropriation makes me think back to something else you wrote about. Another example was how "feminism" tags were used to spread conservative ideas, and that conservative sites often ranked higher in searches for "feminism" than liberal ones. What was going on there?

So that's looking at YouTube videos. I was trying to answer the question, "Don't people on the left also do the same thing as people on the right?" That's a great question, an important one. In order to answer that, I worked with a data scientist: He wrote a script and we looked at the top 10 content producers on YouTube from the left and the top 10 on the right. So we looked at the channels of people with millions of followers, and his script looked at how the content creators were tagging their content. So this wasn't how YouTube was tagging their content, it was about how the creators themselves were tagging their content.

Tags are important, because algorithms aren't people: They read in tags, they read in metadata. The tag is important because it helps an algorithm attach significance to content. It says, "Oh, you're looking for 'feminism'? Oh, this says 'feminism' — this is a match."

What we found when we looked at conservative content creators and progressive content creators is that content creators on the left had no idea how tagging worked, and they used very literal or strategic tagging, I guess you'd call it. They'd have these very literal tags that described what their content was. But conservative content creators recognize, "Well, some people might be looking for this stuff, and if we're trying to push back against these ideas, we need to also tag our content this way." Prager University, for example, which runs a conservative YouTube channel, has more videos tagged as "feminism" than tagged as "conservative." This demonstrates that they just have a more nuanced understanding of how keywords and tagging work than content creators on the left.

I asked about that because it seemed parallel to the appropriation of the "X lives matter" theme.

Absolutely. We didn't look at that tag specifically, "Black lives matter" or "Blue lives matter," but the appropriation of keywords — taking a concept that doesn't actually belong to you, but you're pretending that it does through metadata, then your content is going to be associated with that tag, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with that tag.

Step six is "Make old ideas seem new," which is particularly focused on how discredited racist ideas have been reintroduced. That adds another dimension to what we've just been talking about. Then step seven is "Close the loop." You describe the example of PragerU videos: "By providing textual evidence out of context, these videos invite conservatives to think critically about lines of text provided, but not question the broader cultural narrative in which those texts were created and now exist." How does that apply to the example you explore of how conservatives have subverted Martin Luther King Jr.'s message?

Conservative content creators have galvanized around a single phrase lifted from the "I Have a Dream" speech that allows them to take all of Martin Luther King's work out of context.

A huge number of conservative content creators have galvanized around the phrase lifted from the "I Have a Dream" speech, that King had a dream that his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. So by focusing in on this one very specific line, it allows these political elites — whether that be media pundits or politicians — to take all of Martin Luther King's work out of context. King very much advocated for civil rights under the notion that Black people were not being treated equally in the United States, and I find it interesting that he's now being used as an example of conservative embodiment, when at the time he was classified as a Communist threat and was monitored by the FBI as a potential domestic terrorist. It's a classic example of taking one line and pretending it means something that it does not.

How does this fit into the framework of "closing the loop?" What do you mean by that, and what does it tell us?

So the "loop," I think, is two things. One of the things I describe in the last chapter to close it all together is the cyclical nature of these narratives about outside agitators and radical leftists, which have been around for a very long time. I show how this well-worn path of disinformation has been flowing through this information landscape for the last hundred years.

The other thing I talk about is what I refer to as the IKEA effect of disinformation. Business scholars have found that when people put together low-quality furniture on their own, they're more likely to value it, and think that it's better quality than it actually is. The same tangible, do-it-yourself quality of saying, "Well, don't trust us, go online and Google it for yourself" — or "DuckDuckGo it yourself," whichever one they're saying — activates audiences to take part in this scavenger hunt, not really recognizing that because of the keywords that have been provided to them, specific returns are going to be provided to them, and that these have been written and vetted by those who are telling them to go out and do it themselves. So this is how the loop actually closes, and why it's all interconnected.

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

One thing I'm worried about is that people will say, "Well, this is why I don't go to Google," as if it's their fault. While Google has its issues, I'm not a techno-apologist — it's definitely selling our data, there's problems with the platform — the information-seeking process, whether we go through Google or whatever search engine you choose, is ultimately going to return us largely the same information if we aren't critical about the keywords we start with. So one thing I think we need to be more mindful of is not thinking the fix is going to come from tech companies, but rather thinking about how the fix is contingent on different social interactions with these search engines.

So that's a message for consumers, but also for progressive producers.

Sure. People will say, "Isn't this happening on the left?" And I would say, "Sure, it could." Anyone can use search engine optimization. But it isn't, based on the data I have. It isn't happening to the same capacity. And then, part two is to be mindful. That was my dedication: "To the information seekers everywhere: be mindful where the journey leads." I think a lot of people go, "Be wary of what you're seeing on Facebook" or "Be careful of what you're seeing on Twitter" or "Don't trust what you're seeing on TikTok." So a lot of people will see things, and then go, "Oh, let me go find out." Then they'll take these same concepts and they'll go to Google, and often what's returned to them is the same bad content they saw on Facebook, Twitter or TikTok.

So if you're just kind of input-in/input-out, taking these same ideas and just searching for them, without really recognizing how that works or understanding that search engines aren't neutral arbiters of truth — if you're trying to make sure you're getting the right information, you need to take a little more time in assessing the quality of your sources, and you need to understand that Google is not a helpful librarian.

How the states went nuts — what's next?

Every week seems to bring a new stress fracture in American democracy to light. While the drama of the Jan. 6 hearings focuses attention on former Donald Trump's top-down predation, the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade has unleashed a torrent of state and local conflicts that only grow more intense. This is happening even as many states now enforcing or enacting abortion bans laws actually have pro-choice majorities, as noted in this Monkey Cage analysis by political scientists Jacob Grumbach and Christopher Warshaw.

This article first appeared on Salon.

What comes next is very much up for grabs, but Grumbach's new book "Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics," casts a dramatically different light on how we got here, which in turn says a lot about the task of setting things right.

While "Trump has been characterized as an aberrant wrecking ball that disrupted American politics, Grumbach writes, "it was the states that were the wrecking ball, clearing a path for Trumpism throughout the American political system." His book refutes received wisdom about wisdom of American federalism: Rather than stabilizing and strengthening American democracy, the relative autonomy of states has played a significant role in undermining it, and the disconnect between abortion laws and public opinion disconnect is just one example of a broader democratic breakdown.

State politics is not so much the culprit as the conduit, as Grumbach's subtitle indicates. As the two national parties became more homogeneous with the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, the nature of state-level politics changed significantly. In the period Grumbach's data covers, from 2000 to 2018, there was significant change in public opinion regarding marijuana legalization and LGBTQ rights that was reflected in state legislation. But these two high-salience issues were the exception, not the rule. "For the rest of the issue areas, state policies have changed profoundly, but state opinion has been mostly static," he writes. "And you can't explain change with a constant."

This antidemocratic lawmaking was just one example of a nationally-driven agenda that voters weren't asking for, either on the state or national level. That's the good news, as well as the bad. To make sense of this contradictory state of affairs, I recently spoke with Grumbach about his new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In your preface you use the metaphor that the states served as a "wrecking ball clearing a path for Trumpism." What are some salient developments you'd cite as examples of this?

There's many angles to take on this. One is that since the 2010s there is a huge shift in state-level democratic institutions and some serious democratic backsliding in a handful of states, including key Midwestern and Atlantic seaboard swing states. States like Wisconsin and North Carolina, which Barack Obama won in 2008, proved hugely consequential, as an example, in the 2016 election.

In the 2010 redistricting cycle, you saw states like Wisconsin set records for partisan bias in legislative gerrymandering for both their U.S. House seats as well as their state legislative seats. This allowed a minority of voters to set state legislative majorities, and also to affect who controls the U.S. House. So, that's one thing. Later, after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, those state legislative majorities were able to restrict voting rights and make it more costly and burdensome to vote.

By contrast, other states, like where I am in Washington state or Colorado, were expanding access to the ballot over that same time through things like automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and expansive mail balloting with drop-off locations. That divergence in democratic performance proved really consequential, and that's happening at the state level. And if the Supreme Court rules on the "independent state legislature" doctrine, which may be incoming, it will be even more so.

You also write that "the three monumental crises in 2020 [meaning the pandemic, policing and democracy] revealed an American political system that lacked the capacity to solve fundamental challenges." Keeping in mind that you don't blame federalism alone, what would you highlight to make your point?

Those three crises are different, but they all strongly point us to the role of decentralization and state governments in not solving these problems and allowing them to worsen over time. First would be COVID-19. Early on state governments had trouble coordinating on getting PPE equipment to essential workers, and lack of coordination during the economic crisis precipitated by COVID-19 was hugely important. Also, states don't have a unified unemployment insurance system. They have various underfunded and decentralized forms of welfare state provision, like unemployment insurance or Medicaid. The fact that states were allowed to reject Medicaid expansion, even though the federal government is paying for it through the Affordable Care Act, means that people who are working poor, but may not have children do not have access to Medicaid in these states, which worsens COVID relief, and COVID-based health care.

With Trump in the White House and governors of different parties, decentralized authority meant that no one was really responsible for the outcomes of the COVID pandemic.

Finally, with Trump in the White House and governors of different parties in the states, decentralized authority means decentralized accountability. So that means that no one political office or legislature was really responsible for the outcomes of COVID-19. Decentralized authority means that politicians at different levels of government — mayors, governors, presidents — can reasonably point to the other and say, "That crisis going on in your area, it's this other level of government's fault!" This makes it extremely difficult for voters — especially in the context of sensationalist national media and the decline of state and local journalism — to hold their politicians accountable. If you're a Republican, you can say, "It was my dumb Democratic governor's fault." If you're a Democrat, you can say, "It's Donald Trump's fault." It's really hard to draw lines of accountability there.

What about the second crisis: policing?

Policing is constitutionally a state level authority, and states then delegate authority to local governments. So mayors are the commanders in chief of their police departments and states then have ultimate authority over them. Yet what we see pretty consistently is that police departments tend to be the de facto government and they're extremely insulated from democratic inputs. Police departments are essentially impervious to reform, so when reform-minded mayors and district attorneys come in at the local level what you see is not much change.

One finding I have in the book is that criminal justice policy, unlike other policy areas like abortion rights, the minimum wage, labor relations, health insurance or climate change — all of those areas are really polarized by party. But in terms of policing and incarceration, there's not much difference between red and blue areas, they all tend to take the "tough on crime" approach, even when reform-minded state and local politicians take office. Unlike in other democracies that tend to have centralized authority over policing, in the U.S. this decentralized form of policing allows police department cartels to really run their towns and cities.

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And what about the last crisis: democratic backsliding?

We see throughout American history that state-level authority — state legislatures, especially — have been the main forces of democratic backsliding. They're often aided by a permissive Supreme Court that says, "States, you can do what you wish" with respect to elections or gerrymandering or, in the past, Jim Crow laws and before that slavery, giving states free rein to do that. Democratic backsliding right now is not as extreme as under Jim Crow or slavery, but it is meaningful. What we see is that Congress then decides to get its act together and stop the state-based backsliding, or not. And Congress has not organized to pass laws to ban gerrymandering or certain forms of voter suppression, which it certainly could.

You argue that today's Democratic and Republican parties have nationalized in a way that has fundamentally changed how American federalism operates. So, two questions. First, how have they nationalized in a new way?

Throughout American history, state legislatures have been the main force of democratic backsliding. But what's new in this era is that the political parties are nationalized, and highly polarized.

Throughout American history, the constitutional system has been really decentralized. But what's new and recent is that the political parties are no longer decentralized. They're very nationalized through a series of processes since the 1970s. One is the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, which meant the Democratic Party in the mid-20th century was extremely decentralized. Southern Dixiecrats were pro-Jim Crow, while Northern labor and civil rights Democrats were in favor of egalitarian racial democracy and economic justice. So the Democratic Party was very decentralized through racial politics and then, more recently, you see the Republican Party take on a "Southern strategy" since Nixon which made the party much more Southern.

So that's part of it: racial realignment. But the other processes are things like the nationalization of fundraising since the '70s, where activist organizations, new technology, changes in campaign finance, economic inequality which gave donors much more money to spend, all those things contribute to nationalizing how politicians can be successful. No longer do you tap into local elites to get elected, you can tap into national fundraising and also nationalized media. Since the 1990s, the advent of the internet and Craigslist really destroyed newspaper revenue, so we saw the decline of state and local political journalism, the rise of the internet and especially cable news.

It seems cliché at this point to say that Fox News had a big effect, but it really had an overwhelming effect on nationalizing politics and making the Republican Party much more competitive. That started in the 1990s, which coincided with the Gingrich revolution that made the Republican Party much more extreme and aggressive and nationalized in orientation. Great research by Greg Martin, for example, shows causally that Fox News has improved the electoral fortunes of Republicans over this time period. On the Democratic side, you've got groups like MoveOn, environmental groups and various other activist groups that have nationalized the Democratic Party. There are huge differences between the parties on all sorts of dimensions, but it is true that both became nationalized.

So how did this connect with the main consequences that you cite? First, the resurgence of state-level policymaking?

As the parties nationalized you see that Democrats across the country become more similar to each other. There are no longer Southern conservative Democrats and northern liberal Democrats. There's one Democratic Party and one Republican Party. States like Mississippi and Arkansas had Democratic state legislatures up to the 2000s. It's really remarkable how long it took for them to go Republican. They had a lot of Joe Manchins and even more conservative Democratic state legislators in the South.

Those states become Republican and start passing things for the national Republican agenda. That also happened in the Midwest after 2010. On the Democratic side you see states start to have similar agendas on things like climate and LGBTQ rights and so forth.

Talk about Louis Brandeis' phrase "laboratories of democracy," and why it didn't work out that way.

The idea was that states would serve as national laboratories making policy experiments and would learn best practices from each other. So we have a financial crisis, let's see which states do best in tweaking economic policy, and we'll copy them. In the modern period you don't really see any evidence of that. Policies that do well are no more likely to be emulated by other states, unless that state is controlled by the same party. It's much more about two national communities of state governments, when it was not all about party in the previous period.

What about democratic backsliding in states controlled by the Republicans?

States have done really bad things for democracy in the past — slavery, Jim Crow and so forth. But the politics of those moments of backsliding were much more regional. They were barbaric, but they were really not about national goals. Whereas now you see through Jan. 6, for example, as well as issues around trans rights or critical race theory, that these are really national in orientation. If you listen to the Republican voting base, they say, "Our country is slipping away," and their opposition to the direction of the country is in terms of multiracial democracy rather than highly localized and regional conflicts like Jim Crow legislation.

You're seeing a national orientation, where if the Supreme Court rules on this independent state legislature doctrine, state governments and state legislatures are really battling over who is going to control the country. So when they decide to gerrymandering House districts or suppress the vote, or shut down ballot drop-boxes or whatever — all these voter suppression policies are done with national ambitions to affect national elections, not just control of your state. And that is fundamentally different than before. So the collision of these national parties with these decentralized institutions is creating this explosive moment for American democracy that we may see in the 2024 presidential election.

Talk about the arguments in favor of federalism. We've already discussed the Brandeis tradition, but what about the "decentralist" argument?

Going back to the Federalist Papers and James Madison, the "decentralists" argue that in a large, diverse country like the U.S., it will be more harmonious if we can customize our local areas to the policies we like and not have to battle this out at the national level. So places that are very religious can have a more socially conservative life, while places can be more permissive and libertarian in spirit, they can be customized to local culture and conditions.

The collision of national parties and decentralized institutions is creating an explosive moment for American democracy that we may see play out in the 2024 presidential election.

Another argument Madison made is this idea of "double security": Federalism, by decentralizing authority, meant that one autocrat or dictator couldn't capture the whole system easily. I think there's something to both of those arguments, in the best of times. If you have a would-be dictator with national power, certainly that's not the time to centralize all sorts of institutions. At the same time, state-based authority and decentralization helped propel Trump to office in the first place, right? So there's a flipside to the trade-off.

What about the "new federalist" argument?

So the new federalist arguments are a set of more political economy-based theoretical arguments in the latter half of the 20th century as the social sciences were getting more sophisticated. They believe a lot of the arguments of the decentralists, but use more sophisticated tools. One of their big arguments is that governments will be more efficient and effective because individuals in a decentralized system can move to the place that they'd like to live under.

There's not much evidence that's working very well. First, it's hugely costly to move, even across states, and the people that are able to threaten to move and can influence governments by saying. "I don't like the taxes in this state, I'm going to move," tend to be much wealthier people. So this gives wealthy individuals and big business an advantage over ordinary workers and voters. You hear this all the time, whereas ordinary people don't have that same ability to threaten to leave.

One key observation you build on is that while policy has shifted dramatically at the state level, public opinion in the states has been mostly static over the past generation.

A key example is abortion policy. I wish I had written this knowing all of this would happen now, but I think I called it pretty accurately. Legal abortion has like 61% support in the U.S. and has been at about that level for a generation or more. But right now we're seeing some states banning abortion despite no real change in public opinion or, if anything, an increase in support for legal abortion over time.

Note that the issues where you do see a lot of responsiveness are those that have seen big changes in public opinion, like on marijuana. States that saw huge support for legal marijuana legalized it. The same with LGBTQ rights. Before the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all states, more progressive states started implementing marriage equality.

But on other issues where you see states take hugely important policy changes over the past generation — on taxes, or on labor relations, where in the Midwest they totally dismantled labor unions, for example — you actually don't see people suddenly saying, "Oh, I really hate unions." That's just not happening. It's happening because of these group coalitions when a party takes power in a state and has an ambitious policy agenda based on its coalition. Now the party that controls your state really, really matters for policy outcomes. Again in most areas, you don't see much change in public opinion despite these huge policy changes.

The "laboratories of democracy" idea wasn't about isolated state-level experimentation, but the collective learning process that's typical of science. So how did that model break down?

One trend I do find is that policy emulation or copying between states is much more within one party — parties only share policies within themselves now — than it was in the 1970s. Policies that political economists used to think were objective standards of quality — things like whether the economy grows or whether unemployment gets reduced by state economic policies — are not likely to be emulated by other states if they're controlled by the other party. So it doesn't matter how well the state next to you is doing: If it's controlled by the other party, you will not copy their policies.

Your most crucial finding has to do with the undermining of democracy itself. How do you go about measuring the state of democracy and democratic erosion?

Democracy is a really tough, big concept. One thing that democratic theorists and philosophers do is to break it down into different components. So I mostly talk about electoral democracy. That's things like: Are elections free and fair? Do people have a reasonably easy time getting to the polling place and casting a ballot, or are there really tough burdens to doing that? How fairly are districts drawn in legislative maps? How secure are elections and how much integrity do they have? Do states follow public opinion when passing policy?

I take a bunch of indicators or variables of measures of how fair districts are, or whether a state has certain policies around allowing people to register to vote on Election Day. Or, you know, whether they allow absentee voters, or do they have to prove an onerous health burden, things like that. I put them into a statistical model which then tells me how to weigh those different indicators in measuring democracy. So it's not me imposing my philosophy of things on it. It generates a state democracy score over the past couple of decades, and the big finding there is that some states have done some really serious democratic backsliding, and that has pretty major consequences for democratic performance in the U.S. as a whole, and for the stability of the American political system.

What were the competing causal theories that you tested to explain this democratic backsliding?

This has been a big question for a long time. What causes a society to be a democracy or an autocracy or an oligarchy or whatnot? There's been hundreds of years of theorizing about this. With the focus on the U.S. and recent democracies, there's been some focus on the idea that democracy is really about political competition between the parties, or that it's about polarization between the parties: How distant are the two parties? If they're very polarized, democracies may not work very well.

Another argument is about immigration and racial threat. This is true around the world: As societies change through immigration or there's increased economic or political power of a minority group within society, the majority group gets threatened and will reduce democracy. You see in European far-right parties that are anti-democracy that they are really mobilized against new immigration.

Finally there's one line of theory that's more focused on parties of the wealthy and parties of racial hierarchy, Those tend to be anti-democratic parties and the Republican Party, kind of uniquely around the world, is a party whose elite constituency wants high-end tax cuts and things that help the very wealthy, and also wants to restrict multiracial democracy and maintain racial hierarchy at the electoral base level.

The wealthy constituency of the Republican Party doesn't want a robust democracy of working people, and the electoral base doesn't want a party that shares political power with Black people and more recent immigrants.

Both of those things point towards not wanting to expand democracy and potentially wanting to backslide democracy. What I find is none of those other potential causes are really driving democratic changes in the states. It's really the national Republican Party. When it controls a state it backslides democracy and I think this can be explained by the fact that the wealthy constituency of the Republican Party doesn't want a robust democracy of working people redistributing their wealth, and the electoral base doesn't want a party that has important political influence and political power for Black Americans especially, as well as recent immigrant groups.

You use the term "plutocratic populist partnership" in talking about the GOP. In contrast, you note that civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, as well as labor leaders such as Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther, emphasized linkages between race, class and democracy, arguing that powerful interests exploit racial division for political gain. This is precisely the argument that Ian Haney López and Anat Shenker-Osorio make, and I read this passage as a de facto endorsement of their approach.

Yeah, I really like those two. I would say they're focused on the behavioral aspect of it and whether messaging in the race-class narrative, as they put it, is most effective. I don't do that. I do the political economy and policy side rather than the psychological and behavioral side, so I can't comment on whether that's the most effective messaging. It seems pretty effective to me, but that's not my area of expertise. But it's clear that one thing that's driving changes in democratic institutions — and we see this in terms of political coalitions throughout American history — is this tragedy of the white working class rejecting coalitions with Americans of color that are also working class. They've rejected class-based multiracial coalitions, and as W.E.B. Du Bois has written, have been willing to accept a lower status that at least is not the lowest rung.

The Republican Party at the elite level, which I study much more, is clearly about maintaining this coalition. You see wealthy individuals and big business titans, they realize they're not going to be popular for their economic platforms. It's really hard to win elections saying, "Let's cut taxes for billionaires." So you have to build a coalition with more popular items and somehow get members of the white working class to support the big-business party that supports tax cuts and anti-labor policy. One way to do that is to really focus on anti-immigration politics or social conservatism around gender and sexuality, to avoid elections being about your economic platform. Because it's clear that the Democratic economic platform of more labor rights and health care spending tends to be more popular, but Republicans are very electorally competitive and it's not for their economic platform. It's for these other cultural areas of politics.

So what do you suggest should be done to protect American democracy, in terms of the problems you identify?

A basic pointer for politicians at the national level is this: If you have the opportunity, it's really important to pass national policy that prevents states from doing this type of democratic backsliding. I know that seems ridiculous to say, with getting things through the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court the way it is. But it's clear there have been missed opportunities to pass national policy that would prevent democratic backsliding. You could pass a gerrymander ban. You can reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent a stolen presidential election by state legislatures. There's a lot of things like that.

There's also things that are just as important for protecting democracy, through national policy supporting the labor movement and labor unions. My research with Paul Framer shows that the decline or destruction of labor unions has really increased the power of resentment-based politics, and has helped the Republican Party in this era of the culture war. The decline of labor is not just a problem for wages and health benefits and working situations, it's also a big deal for democracy.

For ordinary activist types reading this book, I would say that state-level politics is highly important and hard to monitor, and that organizations really matter and it takes a long time to produce electoral gains. So long-term organizing, especially through the labor movement, is important. The labor movement is well situated for this, because locals within the unions are federated but have a national coordinating mechanism. It's important to get involved with long-term robust organizations, not just sending a check to a national group in D.C., but getting involved in your community in an organizational capacity. Even though it's extremely boring and thankless, it's more effective over the long term than all the phone-banking and text-banking every presidential election.

One reason labor unions are really important is that we go to work all day. That's like our main task in life. That's one reason why the gun-rights community on the right has been very successful, and the religious right. Having something that brings you together through a social aspect makes you a really powerful force in politics. Groups on the left should think about that. The resurgence of young people organizing union campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks is, I think, one of the bright spots in American politics.

Trumpism without Trump: Maybe he's beginning to fade

Donald Trump's recent endorsement struggles (most notably in Georgia) in the weeks leading up to House Jan. 6 hearings have led to renewed speculation that the former president is losing his grip on the Republican Party. In fact, recent reporting suggests that several prominent Republicans are likely to run for president in 2024, whether or not Trump himself launches a third campaign. But let's put that in the proper context: Trump's oft-repeated Big Lie about the stolen 2020 election has been called the new "Lost Cause" (in literally hundreds of articles) but it's only one facet of a broader mindset that has moved to the center of GOP politics — and none of that is going away, regardless of what happens to Trump as a person or a political figure.

This article first appeared on Salon.

That mindset is rooted in Trump's claim that the system is specifically and maliciously rigged against his base — meaning white Christian conservatives, especially men, who are wholesome, innocent victims of malevolent outside forces, sinister elites and dangerous minorities. This echoes the Lost Cause reframing of the Civil War to cast white Southerners as the noble and innocent victims of similar malevolent forces. Freedom, not slavery, was the cause the South fought for, according to the Lost Cause story goes — "freedom" defined as "states' rights," but only for certain states and on certain issues, of course. Their soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, — were depicted as the greatest and most noble warriors of history. That's the heart of the big lie that Trump's big lie echoes, as attested by the Confederate flags carried into the Capitol during Trump's failed coup attempt, and echoed in his repeated defense of Confederate monuments that wildly misrepresent history.

The "great replacement" theory echoes the same basic claim of victimhood, as do a number of other Trump-era big lies: the "fake news" deflection of all damaging revelations, the QAnon conspiracy theory, the "critical race theory" panic and the related anti-"woke" crusade. (It also underlies Fox News' decision not to air the Jan. 6 hearings — a point I'll return to below.) With all these victimhood narratives in place, it's ludicrous to expect the return of a "strong, responsible" GOP that Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden and the never-Trump Republicans yearn for.

RELATED: To indict Donald Trump, prosecutors will need to prove intent. Well, here it is

Two days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, historian Karen L. Cox drew striking parallels, in a New York Times op-ed, between Trump's wholesale mendacity and the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy, whose central hero was Robert E. Lee. "Mr. Trump's lost cause mirrors that of Lee's," she wrote. "His dedicated followers do not see him as having failed them, but as a man who was failed by others. Mr. Trump best represents their values — even those of white supremacy — and the cause he represents is their cause, too."

But in both cases, the myths were bigger than the men, Cox continued:

The Lost Cause did not belong to Lee; Lee belonged to the Lost Cause — a cultural phenomenon whose momentum could not be stopped.
Even if Mr. Trump were to remove himself from public life in the coming years, his lost cause and the myths he's helped create about elections, voter fraud and fake news will likely continue, a cultural and political phenomenon that shows no sign of ending.

Cox is hardly alone in making this point. Five years earlier political scientist Angie Maxwell, co-author of "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here), identified Trump's candidacy with the Lost Cause. "Southern white support for Trump is not just about losing the Civil War. It's about losing, period," she wrote. Nor was it limited to the South, even if that was where he ran strongest. "Trump's Southern strategy turns out to be less about geography and more about identity. And many want to go back to an America in which people like them run the show," Maxwell wrote. While race was clearly a fundamental ingredient, the defensive logic goes much farther:

Southern whiteness expands beyond racial identity and supremacy, encapsulating rigid stances on religion, education, the role of government, the view of art, an opposition to science and expertise and immigrants and feminism, and any other topic that comes under attack. This ideological web of inseparable strands envelops a community and covers everything, and it is easily (and intentionally by Donald Trump) snagged.

All this was in place before Trump ran in 2016, but it wasn't center stage in American conservative politics. Now it is. And even if Trump leaves the stage, the play will go on. Evidence to that effect is overwhelming. As noted above, the same basic victimhood mindset underlies the Fox News decision not to air the Jan. 6 hearings, catering to the whole spectrum of reality-denying narratives about Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election. "There is a kind of perverse public service standard there. Fox is protecting its public from the news," NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted. "It has made the call that the committed audience won't stand for having the hearings 'shoved down our throats.'" This may not qualify as new information, but Fox News is in the identity-protection business, not the "news" business. That quasi-cult identity has been reshaped by Trump over the past seven years, even as he previously reshaped himself as someone capable of doing that.

Republicans like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger successfully defied Trump's efforts to steal the 2020 election, and then defeated Trump-endorsed candidates. But it's important to understand that they're committed to project of potentially stealing future elections, by repeating, amplifying and acting on a subset of election lies that they're personally most comfortable with — which of course could always shift again in the future.

That's precisely what happened with the original Lost Cause, as historian Adam Domby explores in "The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory," which focuses on the unique political culture and history of North Carolina. "The construction of a coherent Lost Cause narrative was not always a deliberate process," Domby writes. "At times, it was an organic one built on minor exaggerations and fabrications woven into daily life. Some stories were created to serve a specific purpose for an individual, often for monetary gain; others, to garner social capital; and others still to aid in political mobilization." A similar narrative mishmash was used by many so-called conservatives, first to justify supporting Trump in 2016, then to explain away his 2020 election loss, and now to justify or explain away the Jan. 6 insurrection. In every case, a supposedly conservative, no-nonsense, traditionally-minded population engaged in fanciful, inventive storytelling in order to create a new comfort zone and then inhabit it.

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As noted above, the core of the Lost Cause lay in denial about the central cause of the Civil War and in portraying the Confederacy as engaged in an heroic struggle for freedom, not slavery: "freedom" defined as states' rights to self-determination, thus turning the North into a tyrannical bogeyman. "This allowed Confederates to be recalled not as traitors but as noble patriots fighting to defend a set of principles that survived the war despite defeat on the battlefield," Domby notes. "In addition to a new gallant cause, this narrative required a legacy of valiant military deeds. The Lost Cause presented Confederate soldiers as the greatest in human history, warriors who only lost the war due to the overwhelming resources of the North."

These key elements shaped others, such as the disappearance from historical accounts of any white Southern opposition to slavery or secession and the historical fabrication of "Black Confederates," along with the disappearance of mass Black resistance.

"Confederate mythmakers excised the memory of southern dissenters, Unionists, deserters, draft dodgers, and even ambivalent southerners from their retelling of the war," Domby writes. "Neither black nor white North Carolinians of the Civil War generation believed there had been black Confederate troops during the conflict," but the long-belated creation of "Class B" pensions for formerly enslaved people "reinforced white supremacy by perpetuating a myth of widespread loyal slaves," even though the arguments made for such pensions around the turn of the century "made clear that the loyalty being rewarded was to white slave owners rather than the Confederate state." Only in the last two decades has the existence of these pensions been trotted out to argue that enslaved people fought for the Confederacy in any meaningful sense.

Domby's book is strongest in illuminating how these different strands weave together, serving different subjects and their shifting needs over time. For simplicity's sake, military historian Edward Bonekemper's "The Myth of the Lost Cause" effectively demolishes the core of that false narrative. He identifies seven main tenets that fall into two main categories: The first two are devoted to denying the central role of slavery in the conflict, and the rest to casting the war in chivalric terms, with Lee as doomed hero. Although he devotes separate chapters to refuting each tenet, two brief passages effectively refute the first four tenets in just a few sentences.

The first two tenets are these:

Slavery was a benevolent institution for all involved but was dying by 1861. There was therefore no need to abolish slavery suddenly, especially by war.
States' rights, not slavery, was the cause of secession and the establishment of the Confederacy and thus of the Civil War.

In response, Bonekemper cites one simple fact: When the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened in 1850, "the fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery led some fifteen to twenty thousand free Northern blacks to migrate to Canada between 1850 and 1860." This terror-driven mass migration is clearly incompatible with the invented notion that slavery was on the way out, or that the South was genuinely committed to the principle of states' rights.

The next two tenets — central to the chivalric account — are also quickly demolished.:

The Confederacy had no chance of winning, but did the best it could with its limited resources.
Indeed, it almost won, led by Robert E. Lee, one of the greatest generals in history.

Bonekemper points out, however, that in military terms, "All the Confederacy needed was a stalemate, which would confirm its existence as a separate country. The burden was on the North to defeat the Confederacy and compel the return of the eleven wayward states to the Union."

If Lee had really been "one of the greatest generals in history," surely he would have understood this. Instead, he pushed for dramatic victories, leading to catastrophic defeat. Bonekemper has written an entire book on that topic, "How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War," but this observation alone suffices to pierce the great man's myth. A military commander's first responsibility is grand strategy (as we have seen more recently in Ukraine), and getting that wrong is to inflict carnage and defeat on your own troops.

Of course historians have much more to say about these questions, but the point here is that the Confederate Lost Cause myth can be refuted with a few straightforward facts — and the same is true of Donald Trump's 2020 Lost Cause. The 63 court cases Trump and his allies lost offered absolutely no hard evidence for his stolen-election claims, and we just heard former Attorney General Bill Barr, no friend to the Democrats, calling many of those claims "complete nonsense," "crazy stuff" or simply "bullshit." We also now know that Trump's internal campaign operatives, who had remained loyal through and after Election Day, told him clearly he had lost, and that his own daughter took Barr's word for it.

But here's the thing about myths: They generally can't be punctured by evidence. What matters for myths is their power to make meaning, as Karen Armstrong argues in the introduction to "The Battle for God." Secondly and even more important, the consequences of Trump's election lies continue to unfold: There's a vigorous multi-pronged effort to enable Republicans to win the White House in 2024, regardless of what voters want and regardless of whether Trump himself is the candidate. In other words, Trump's Lost Cause myth is still thriving, even if it will never give him what he wants most: erasing the stigma of being a loser.

Kemp and Raffensperger's success in winning re-election despite Trump is evidence, in fact, that Trumpism can continue even without its namesake. Much the same can be said about the other Trump-era big lies I referenced above. The QAnon cult began, for example, to deflect attention from Robert Mueller's investigation deflection, although it had deep roots in American conspiracy culture and historical antisemitism. Ambiguity was part of its DNA, morphing in all manner of ways, so the end of the Mueller investigation without any payoff made little difference to its spread, and belief in QAnon has reportedly increased since Trump left office, even though he can no longer order the mass arrests of alleged pedophile liberals.

Similarly, the hollowness of the "critical race theory" panic, as captured in Don Moynihan's "Bullshit, Branding and CRT," is its not-so-secret source of strength. If Trumpism is our real problem, more than Donald Trump as a figurehead or actual candidate, then opponents of Trumpism need an appropriate counter-myth. Trump triumphed over the rest of the Republican field in 2016 because conventional conservatism had utterly failed to deliver on its promises.

Conservatives have excelled at winning elections and gaining political power, as shown in Edmund Fawcett's historical overview, "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition" (author interview here.) But exercising political power hasn't gone nearly as well — because conservative solutions based on ideologies of "small government" and the "free market" simply don't work. Rather than running away from "big government" as Democrats have habitually done, at least since the Clinton years, liberals and progressives need to think constructively about how to make government serve people better — not just as a matter of policy, but as a way of shared meaning-making, because that's literally what it is.

This is most visible in public schools, public libraries, public parks and other such areas of the commons, as explored in the recent book "The Privatization of Everything" (author interview here), yet we consistently fail to recognize or celebrate that, let alone be guided by it in more difficult realms, such as responding to crime or inflation, to cite two highly relevant examples.

The essence of democracy is the promise that the people, acting together, can shape a better world. When democracy fails to deliver, openings are created for autocrats, who will promising impossible, quasi-utopian solutions in order to gain power. Once they have power, as we have recently discovered, they never give it up willingly. By allowing anti-government conservatives to hold power for far too long, along with their Democratic appeasers, we have left ourselves vulnerable to authoritarian takeover. Even if Donald Trump is beginning to fade from the scene, that danger is very much still with us.

Buffalo, Jan. 6 and the rise of partisan violence: These scholars saw it coming

A single incident can't prove anything in terms of social science, but it can certainly serve as a vivid illustration. That was the case with the Buffalo massacre that horrified the nation and the world last weekend, which seemed almost inevitable in light of the new book "Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, and the Consequences for Democracy" by Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason.

This article first appeared in Salon.

The Buffalo shooter's so-called manifesto, Kalmoe told me, consists of "partisan Republican media talking points," especially those of Fox News' Tucker Carlson, "along with the most radical elected Republican leaders." I wrote about the history of the "great replacement" theory last year, but "Radical American Partisanship" provides a broader perspective. "Our book talks about the long history of racial-partisan violence and how those two things are linked," Kalmoe said. "We don't know the shooter's media exposure so we can't begin to judge cause and effect, but we can say this is the kind of action you'd expect more people to take as explicit white supremacy, antisemitism and other extreme conspiratorial vilification gets mainstreamed among Republicans."

That mainstreaming creates another causal pathway by way of "norm erosion," as co-author Mason noted in a Twitter conversation with other social scientists: "More people holding radical (in our case, violent) beliefs changes the social norm-enforcement mechanism, by reducing the number of people who will engage in norm-enforcing social sanctions."

RELATED: Expert panel on the Buffalo shooter and what he stands for: "He was not a lone gunman"

Partisan violence is part of our history, as Kalmoe explored in his 2020 book "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" (Salon interview here), but when Kalmoe and Mason began their collaboration in 2017 they could hardly find any public-opinion research on the subject. They didn't quite have to invent a new field from scratch, but they did have to weave together a bunch of different strands of academic research that hadn't previously been integrated into how we think about partisan politics. The surveys reported in this book, which basically cover the period of the Trump presidency, from 2017 to early 2021 will reshape our understanding of this long-neglected aspect of American politics. But they're also important right now, for tragic and obvious reasons. I interviewed Kalmoe and Mason recently by email. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

The massacre in Buffalo immediately made me think of your book. The shooter's stated rationale wasn't "partisan," in the normal sense, but his worldview surely was. Your book begins by asking why it was so easy for Donald Trump to stoke the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Beyond the immediate answer — his own incitements — you argue that "the bases of each party are divided into nearly warring factions with radically opposed visions for America," and that this is "a battle over the future — and the past — of the United States." So what consequences flow from that?

Mason: One of the main findings of the book is that Republicans who are high in racial resentment and hostile sexism are also the most likely to vilify and dehumanize Democrats. For Democrats, it's the people low in racial resentment who are the most likely to vilify and dehumanize Republicans. These vilifying and dehumanizing attitudes (what we call "moral disengagement") are common precursors to mass violence in other countries. For Republicans in particular, the most powerful predictor of moral disengagement is an opposition to racial and gender equality or a denial that any inequality exists.

One of the biggest sources of conflict is a fundamental disagreement about whether we've made enough progress toward racial and gender equality or whether we have gone too far.

This means that one of the biggest divides (and sources of conflict) between Democrats and Republicans is a fundamental disagreement about whether the U.S. has made enough progress toward racial and gender equality, or whether we have gone too far and need to roll back some of the progress we have made. Americans aren't very good at talking about racial and gender equality in a calm and composed way. These conversations often erupt into violence throughout American history.

So what's different right now?

Mason: It's already a volatile topic. But now that we've organized the discussion along partisan lines, it allows our electoral politics to become as violent as racial conflict. The "replacement" theory that Tucker Carlson, Rep. Elise Stefanik and others are pushing is, on its face, a political one. They say that Democrats are trying to replace white voters (who tend to vote for Republicans) with "immigrants" who are "more obedient" and will automatically vote for Democrats. This "sanitized" version of replacement theory allows racial animosity to be papered over with "political" animosity — which is generally more socially acceptable.

All of this comes out of the increasing trend of "social sorting" between the parties, with the Republican Party becoming the party of white Christian rural men, and the Democratic Party representing everyone else. The party divide mirrors the divide between those at the top of the traditional social hierarchy and those who are traditionally marginalized. The Buffalo shooting, however, made clear that even if Tucker Carlson is speaking about a political conflict, the racial message still comes through quite clearly.

Partisan violence is very understudied in political science, so much so that there were very few surveys you could use. But that's not the case with social psychology. Why is there a difference, and what tools does social psychology provide that you built upon?

Kalmoe: Political violence, including violence instigated by parties, is a big research area among political scientists studying other countries, but it has rarely been a focus for scholars of American politics, partly because of our bias toward studying the present and recent past. Many assumed that what's happening "over there" can't happen here, even though it already happened here in the more distant past.

The founding research on American partisanship focused narrowly on the national electoral politics of the 1950s. There was white supremacist political violence in the South targeting civil rights efforts at the time, but that conflict divided Northern and Southern Democrats rather than dividing the two parties. Thus, the account of partisan identities and motives among ordinary people is quite tame.

Social psychology was founded at the same time, but with a heavy focus on explaining the violence of the Holocaust, which followed empowerment of the Nazi Party in Germany and fascists elsewhere. What caused ordinary people to participate in atrocities on an unfathomable scale? They focused on the harms that can emerge from us-vs.-them identity categorization, and the extent to which people are susceptible to following leaders and peers — opinion leadership and social influence.

We identify strength of social identification with a political party as one vital factor distinguishing those who are more likely to endorse radical partisan views, and we test the role of messages for top party leaders in changing the views of their followers and opponents.

You focus on two major concepts: partisan moral disengagement and partisan violence. How are these defined as concepts? How are they related, and how do you measure them?

Kalmoe: Partisan moral disengagement builds on psychological research by Albert Bandura and others showing that people who hurt others tend to hold views that rationalize that harm. For example, we measure views that political opponents are a national threat, that they are evil and that they lack the traits to be fully human. We expected that people who endorse some of all of these views would be more likely to endorse physically harming opponents, and that is what we found in our surveys.

We measured support for partisan violence with more than two dozen different questions, ranging in specificity of the context and severity of harm. Our four most common questions asked about approval of threats against opposing leaders and voters. One question on whether violence by one's own party is justified, and there was a final question on support for violence if the opposing party wins the next presidential election. We also asked specific questions about assassinating opponents, about support for the January 2021 Capitol insurrection, and reactions to the shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords (a Democrat) and Rep. Steve Scalise (a Republican), for example.

One important thing we found is that people have lots of different things in mind for the term "violence." While psychologists define it as resulting in severe maiming or death, many of the people who endorse partisan violence in our surveys told us in follow-up questions that they had lesser harms in mind, like fistfights, for example. So levels of support for "violence" include a broad range of behaviors, though they're all contentious and worrisome in their own ways.

Historically, you argue, "Americans seem to support political violence in some historical cases and under certain conditions." When do they support it, and when don't they? And what falls in between?

Kalmoe: One of the most important takeaways from our research is that there is no single level of support for political violence to find. Support depends entirely on the details. For example, we found modern support for the political violence of the American Revolution at 80% among partisans, which is about four times higher than our standard measures and orders of magnitude above some of our most severe and contextually specific questions.

We know from historical episodes of political violence in the past that millions of ordinary Americans can be organized into violent conflict, as during the Revolution and the Civil War, along with the organized racial-partisan violence during Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

We argue that the most important factors that shift public support for political violence, and participation in that violence, are the factors identified by social psychologists: influence from trusted leaders and from peer social networks. Both serve to set the norms for attitudes and behaviors regarding violence, and when the group says it's OK, people think and act accordingly. Of course, individual attributes like "trait aggression" still influence who is especially inclined to be an early adopter of those views and behaviors.

How is support for violence calibrated? In the extreme, some people involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection were ready or even eager for civil war. But how many people were willing to go that far?

Kalmoe: Our research speaks most to public attitudes about political violence, which certainly serves as a risk factor for the few who engage in violent acts. We began this project, however, thinking about the broader social environment for contentious partisanship. The prevalence of violent views could serve as a vital accelerant or brake on violent acts when neighbors and friends learn that someone in their social circle is planning violence. Their own views about violence could serve to encourage or discourage actions by others, and it will affect how they respond politically to violent political attacks in general. Our work doesn't directly analyze participation in political violence. That vital question is being answered by others.

How did the measures of partisan moral disengagement and partisan violence change over time? What did those changes reflect or reveal?

Kalmoe: We found steadily rising levels of support for partisan violence from our first survey in 2017 through our last reported in the book, in February 2021. Our vilifying questions for partisan moral disengagement also steadily rose over that time. Support for threats against leaders and citizens were a little more variable, rising at times of greatest contention and then dropping afterward. Those results tell us that, even within our current contentious period, those radical views are becoming more prevalent.

The trends in our survey work generally comport with rising levels of threats against leaders. For example, the Los Angeles Times cataloged steadily rising threats against Congress from 2016, when they numbered just under 1,000, to 2021, when they nearly reached 10,0000 — an order of magnitude more in just four years.

What's the role of "trait aggression," which you mentioned earlier? What role does it play in predicting partisan violence, and how does it interact with partisan moral disengagement?

Kalmoe: Trait aggression is an individual tendency to behave aggressively in everyday interactions with other people, including verbal and physical forms. We found that aggressive tendencies translate into greater support for partisan violence. In fact, trait aggression is the strongest predictor of violent partisan views among the many factors we tested.

Perpetrators of partisan violence almost always have a history of aggressive criminal behavior, and often a history of domestic violence.

But the political component of those views is important too. We found the strongest relationships between trait aggression and support for partisan violence among people who vilified partisan opponents, and likewise, we found that partisan moral disengagement predicted violent partisan views most among people who were interpersonally aggressive.

We can see a similar dynamic in violent political behavior. Those perpetrators almost always seem to have a history of aggressive criminal behavior and often a history of perpetrating domestic violence too.

You write that "the same things that predict conventional political actions like voting can also predict and explain aggressive behavior and violence." How so?

Kalmoe: Strength of social identification with the political party is one of the most important motivating forces for partisan action through voting, volunteering, donating and other nonviolent participatory acts. Our work shows that that same identity-based motivation also leads some partisans to endorse violence against their partisan opponents.

You write that one of your survey results "means [there are] roughly 20 million [Americans] who endorse assassinating U.S. leaders." That would surely be a shocking result to most people. What was the question that produced this result, and why is it so at odds with "common sense" political discourse?

Kalmoe: In one question, we asked "How much do you feel it is justified for [your own party] to kill opposing political leaders to advance their political goals these days?" Response options ranged from "not at all" to "a great deal." Nearly 90% of respondents chose "not at all," but 11% said assassination was at least "a little" justified.

Many people tend to censor their most extreme views in public for fear of social and legal sanctions, so the extreme rhetoric we hear often lacks that violent specificity. But we've also heard quite a lot of explicitly violent rhetoric stated publicly in recent years. Pundits and researchers have been too quick to dismiss those as merely expressive and fundamentally unserious. Of course, there are ranges of seriousness across people, but it is a mistake to dismiss these expressions as just blowing off steam. Given the rise in political violence and threats, alongside violent rhetoric and violent attitudes, some of the folks who set the conventional wisdom are beginning to wrestle with the degree and prevalence of that extreme hostility.

You report that "Political victimization is prevalent in the U.S.," ranging from insults to physical attacks. While far fewer people report aggression, you wrote that even the small percentages you found "potentially represent the behaviors of hundreds of thousands — even millions — of Americans engaged in extreme political behavior that goes unnoticed in news and scholarship."

Kalmoe: In addition to asking about extremely hostile and violent attitudes, we asked people to report their own aggressive political behavior, and whether they have been on the receiving end of aggression over politics. Nearly half of our respondents said they had been insulted, one in six said they'd been threatened, and 3% said they had been physically assaulted over politics. The numbers were substantially higher among those who said they regularly talk about politics, as you'd expect.

The portion admitting they themselves had behaved aggressively over politics was much lower: about one-quarter for insults, and only 1% for threats and physical altercations.

Both sets of results are novel, as far as we know. Few if any researchers are asking questions like these, even among those now asking about political violence. One reason that people might be so surprised by political violence like the 2021 Capitol attack is that no one has been systematically documenting the prevalence of milder aggressive behaviors that apparently are very common. And of course the people who engage in low-level political aggression are the likeliest to participate in more extreme actions.

After the 2020 election, you found that "about a fifth of American partisans were ready for a full-blown violent rebellion against the newly elected president and his government." What are the implications of that?

Kalmoe: Clearly, several thousand Americans went beyond support for violently overthrowing the newly-elected government to acting on that view in the 2021 Capitol attack. That episode, and the thousands of death threats targeting election administrators and others for upholding their civic duties after the 2020 election, are the clearest implications.

Most people who support political violence won't act on it — but their support has important effects on the actions of those few who will.

Most people who support political violence won't act on it. Of course, that's true in wars too. A majority of Americans initially supported the Iraq war, for example, even though a tiny fraction actually did the fighting. But their support for violence has important effects on the actions of those few, and helps determine whether the numbers of combatants will grow in spirals of provocation.

What did you find about the potential impact of anti-violence messages? How did this compare with what Donald Trump actually did?

Mason: A piece of good news from the book is that leaders seem to have a powerful ability to pacify violent attitudes among partisans. When we had survey respondents read a message from Biden or Trump denouncing political violence, we found that strong partisans responded by becoming less supportive of violence. We saw this effect even after reading a single sentence from a leader. It follows that sustained anti-violence rhetoric from leaders should be even more powerful. Importantly, Trump did the opposite in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. He very likely could have prevented the violence that occurred if he had broadly discouraged it in the first place. But instead Trump stoked violent feelings and behaviors.

In our surveys, we observe similar levels of support for violence among Democrats and Republicans. But observed levels of real violence in the American public are almost entirely from right-wing actors. This is likely due to the difference in rhetoric between Democratic and Republican leaders. Condemning violence is extremely important, even if the original violent message is purported to be "only a joke."

What did your research show about the relative influence of Fox News and MSNBC?

Mason: Americans who consumed partisan media (Fox News and MSNBC) were significantly more radical in their partisan views than those who watched CNN. For Fox News in particular, their viewers were both more morally disengaged from Democrats and more willing to endorse sending threats to Democrats. Those who watched MSNBC were not more morally disengaged than those who watched CNN, but they were more likely to endorse sending threats to Republicans. Overall, Fox News viewers seem to be significantly more likely to dehumanize and vilify Democrats than consumers of any other news source.

The recent wave of attacks on Democrats who support LGBTQ+ rights as "groomers" — by implication, pedophiles — seems like another worrying example of dehumanization. Aren't media elites and politicians who take up such language grooming their followers for violence?

It's hard to imagine anything more vile than sexually abusing children. Vilifying one's opponents with that evil reputation clearly makes political violence against those groups more likely.

Kalmoe: The "groomer" and "pedo" conspiracy rhetoric accomplishes two things at once for Republicans. It ties into long-standing vilifying tropes of LGBTQ+ people that appeal to the most radical religious base, but it also serves a broader purpose of vilifying Democrats and liberals generally. It's hard to imagine anything more vile than sexually abusing children, so the attempt to invent that political reputation for their opponents is the horrifying logical conclusion of increasing vilification. By going to those vilifying extremes, they make political violence against all those groups more likely because it's easier for people to rationalize violence against people whose evil behaviors define them.

What did you find in terms of prospects for the future? How should we understand the stakes and the risks we face?

Mason: We're in a pivotal moment as a country. Every time we make progress on racial equality and civil rights, we tend to see a backlash. The current political clash is about whether we can continue to improve the country's progress toward a fully multiracial democracy, or whether we go back to a time when white Christian men had full control over society. It's an intense conversation, but also it's one that we need to have. When we can't talk about racism and sexism, that protects racism and sexism. There is no way to have this conversation about the country's past and future in a way that is without conflict, but there is also no guarantee that equality will always win and prejudice will always lose. So it's an intense moment, but it's also a very important one.

Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Kalmoe: We make very clear in the book that while levels of radical partisanship are sometimes similar between Democrats and Republicans, the roots of that radicalism are not morally equivalent. We also acknowledge that political violence is sometimes a last resort, and that viewing opponents as a threat may be an objective evaluation and not a view to be condemned.

We should also note that while our research focuses on partisan violence, the biggest threats to democracy in the U.S. are from legal channels, not civilians acting out violently — although those sometimes reinforce each other. Legislatures, governors, courts, administrators and presidents all have far more influence over whether the U.S. moves toward or away from democracy than any mob, militia, terror cell or assassin.

Historians to Trump: You're fired!

"The Trump presidency was not an aberration but the culmination of more than three decades in the GOP's evolution." So writes historian Julian Zelizer, seeking to answer the question of "how the 'Party of Lincoln' had become the 'Party of Trump.'" That also sums up the shared perspective of more than a dozen historians contributing chapters to "The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment."

Trump's presidency "was not some one-off that will automatically result in a course-correction," Zelizer writes, "but a period of deep-seated conflict that profoundly wounded our polity. When his term was done, the Trump presidency cemented some of the biggest fault lines in the nation."

This article first appeared in Salon.

This book comes as a welcome corrective to the news media's eternal puzzlement over Trump: It's a rich collection that significantly expands perspectives, beyond the familiar media frames, across a wide range of topics. But two crucial elements are missing. It lacks a blunt account of how conservatism's decades-long policy failures opened the way for Trump, and it doesn't provide a nuanced account of the ways Trump's presidency was both a historical culmination and a potential breaking point, shifting America to a form of competitive authoritarianism — in which elections still occur, but are not significant in determining who holds power.

RELATED: Here's why Trump won't run in 2024 — and why the Trump cult ultimately can't win

That hasn't happened yet, and it's arguably not a historian's job to address the abyss that still lies ahead. As Zelizer explains, this volume is intended to be a first draft of history, "part of an ongoing conversation" that "will continue to evolve in perpetuity." But if American democracy continues to crumble, that conversation will inevitably take a darker turn.

Zelizer describes the book's chapters as falling into four groups, six that "focus on the institutional and coalitional foundations on which the Trump presidency was built," five that "explore the roots and impacts of Trump's domestic policies," three that do the same for his foreign policies, and four that "look at the political and policy forces that checked and weakened" Trump's presidency — and ultimately ended it.

Setting the stage: What made Trump possible?

Zelizer's chapter in that first group sketches a broad evolutionary argument, stressing how "increasingly conservative voices tied to a grassroots movement pushed their way to the top of the party," with many Trumpian elements — the personalized attack politics of Lee Atwater and Newt Gingrich, the contempt for expertise of the George W. Bush administration — largely in place long before Trump took center stage. It's a solid beginning for the book that follows, but what's notably missing is the role of elite funders and the institutions and organizations they created to shape, nurture and mobilize that movement. The role of the radicalized religious right is also notably absent, which is a surprising omission considering the role of white evangelical support and Christian nationalism (e.g., dominionist leader Lance Wallnau's book "God's Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling") in cultivating support for Trump.

He says little about conservative media, too, but that side of the story is well covered by Nicole Hemmer ("Messengers of the Right"), whose chapter, "Remade in His Image: How Trump Transformed Right-Wing Media" is one of the strongest for its combination of historical scope and nuanced detail. Hemmer begins in the 1950s with publications like National Review and radio shows like "The Manion Forum," whose host promised, "Every speaker over our network has been 100 percent right-wing. … No left-winger, no international socialist, no one-worlder, no communist will ever be heard."

The ideological purity and isolation of that statement set the tone for so much that followed, with the rise of populist right-wing talk radio, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Hemmer's account reflects how seamlessly Trump's manipulations fit into the larger dynamic in which media figures radicalize their audiences through feedback loops that have grown exponentially more powerful, marginalizing those who are unwilling or unable to keep up.

Angus Burgin's related chapter, "The Crisis of Truth in the Age of Trump" is descriptively apt, noting that Trump "promised from the outset to deal with a slew of fictitious problems…. And he promised his audiences a fictitious future." But Burgin is needlessly constrained when he agonizes that "the central concern raised by the crisis of truth in the age of Trump was not — despite his obvious admiration for those in positions of despotic power — about an excess of authoritarianism but rather about a possible excess of democracy. ... [H]ad the evolution of our media environment created a need for heavier-handed regulation?"

Burgin notes that Jürgen Habermas has "expressed an enduring faith in the prospects for reasoned debate in an age of information abundance," but does not connect that such faith with recent work being done to vindicate it, such as Chris Bail's "Breaking the Social Media Prism" and Philipp Lorenz-Spreen's paper on promoting online "truth, autonomy and democratic discourse."

Three chapters on substantive demographic politics follow. The most crucial is Kathleen Belew's on "Militant Whiteness in the Age of Trump," followed by Geraldo Cadava's "Latinos for Trump" and Leandra Zarnow's chapter on "Trump's feud with feminists" and the "triumph" of conservative women. Belew explains a key source of Trump's strength, while the two others explore why Trump and the Republican Party's alleged demographic weakness is not quite what many liberals and leftists imagine. Crucially, Belew illuminates the relationships between white power, white nationalism and white supremacy:

White power refers to a branch of the larger militant Right, a coalition that also includes some violent conservatives who say they are not motivated by race. White power is both white supremacist and committed to violence. White nationalism, on the other hand, can refer in common usage to two very different things. One is the idea that there is something about America that is, and should be, intrinsically white, and that people pursuing policy making should ensure that this remains so.... The second use of the term refers to people seeking a white homeland (also sometimes called white separatism).

That sets the stage for explaining what happened under Trump:

[T]he Trump years featured both a white nationalist policy project helmed by people in the administration and a white power social movement that believed many of the same claims about whiteness but wished for a white ethnostate, ideally through the overthrow of the country. … White power and white nationalism both fall under a broader category: white supremacy. This refers not only to people who have racist belief systems (overtly or covertly) but also to a broad array of systems, histories, and infrastructures that continue to contribute to racial inequality even when individual racism is absent.

This kind of analysis is crucial to understanding not just what Trump and his allies were (and are) actually doing, but also how to respond to backlash obfuscations like the "critical race theory" moral panic, which intentionally collapses the distinctions Belew carefully draws.

Cadava calls Trump's Latino outreach "perhaps the most ordinary part of an extraordinary presidency," drawing on a GOP playbook dating back to Reagan's 1980 campaign, when a trio of Mexican-American advertising and media executives identified four things as core characteristic of the Hispanic Republican: "religious devotion, a tireless work ethic, anticommunism, and the related belief in free market capitalism as the best path to prosperity." While Trump certainly differed from Reagan in many important ways — most notably on border and immigration issues — this playbook remained essentially intact. As Cadava writes, "the understandable and justified media coverage of the outrages of the Trump era obscured the more mundane but effective ways that Trump built Latino support with his persistent focus on immigration, the economy, religious freedom, and the supposed rise of socialism within the Democratic Party."

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Zarnow's chapter begins with the worldwide Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration, which may have begun with white women's gut reactions on social media but matured into a sophisticated centering of diverse, marginalized identities. After setting the stage, however, she echoes Cadava's historical parallels:

No president since Ronald Reagan offered right-wing women more opportunity to be political insiders with a direct channel to the West Wing. For this personal success, they were grateful and devoted. "I've never felt anything but respected and empowered by him to do my job," professed Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Zarnow goes on to note that the "language of empowerment Sanders uses here, like color blindness, has been deployed by conservatives as a device to counter how much the mass feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s successfully shifted the gender landscape in the United States." That's true, of course. It's equally true that Trump has a long history of employing and promoting women, precisely because they're almost universally undervalued and are a great source of underpaid labor, as are the undocumented immigrants he has often employed at his various projects and properties. Neither Zarnow nor Cadava appears to notice that telling comparison.

Domestic policies

Three of the five chapters on Trump's domestic policies also emphasize the centrality of race. Two do so specifically, "Immigration Policy and Politics Under Trump" by Mae Ngai and "From Color-Blind to Black Lives Matter" by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Race also figures centrally in "The Rhetoric and Reality of Infrastructure During the Trump Presidency" by Jason Scott Smith, which mentions white supremacy in its second sentence.

Ngai's primary focus is giving shape to Trump's savage, shambolic immigration policies, whose wanton cruelty is more widely understood than their sheer scope and volume. "Altogether, some one thousand changes in immigration policy were made by rule modifications, directives, form changes, memos, certifications, executive orders, presidential proclamations, pending rule changes, and other bureaucratic actions," she writes.

Ngai also provides concise historical context, first by noting that nativism tends to emerge during "periods of [economic] expansion associated with large structural transformation, or what economists call sectoral change," which "engender[s] anxiety as opportunity looms simultaneously large and elusive for portions of the population."

Immigrants do not create such change, nor do they generally "replace" native-born workers, but they do tend to work in newly expanding sectors. Ngai also notes that upsurges of nativism are "symbiotically linked — politically and structurally — to contemporaneous surges of racism and racial oppression of African Americans."

But specific episodes require specific analysis. "In our time, racism against immigrant communities of color, especially Latino communities, is the fundamental core of nativism," Ngai writes. "But open racism became impolitic in the post-civil rights era. It became dressed as a complaint against 'illegal aliens,'" providing a veneer of legitimacy unwarranted by facts on the ground: Most Latinos in the U.S. are citizens, and undocumented workers overwhelmingly take jobs that citizens or documented workers don't want.

"Nativism has been a staple of conservative politics since the 1980s," she writes, but Republican opinion was split between "business interests, which wanted to exploit immigrants, and racial and cultural nationalists, who wished to expel them." By 2016, the latter had triumphed, she notes, but without exploring the reasons why — which goes back to the missing analysis of conservative policy failure.

Smith's infrastructure chapter follows and is closely related. "Trump's pledge to rebuild the nation's infrastructure was by far his most popular campaign promise, but it was one that went seemingly unfulfilled," Smith notes, leading some conservatives, like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, to dismiss Trump. Nonetheless, he continues:

Trump's rhetorical commitments to infrastructure in fact underwrote a sea change in the legal mechanisms and policing practices of the federal government, changes with profound consequences, particularly for immigrants, asylum seekers, and people of color. … Trump used the language of infrastructure as a strategic weapon, as historian of rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca has perceptively observed: to unite supporters, divide opponents, and avoid accountability for his words and deeds.

Trump's infrastructure plan was his most popular campaign promise, and the one he never even tried to fulfill — except for the piecemeal construction of a border wall.

Gallup found at the time of Trump's inauguration that his infrastructure plan was his most popular campaign promise, rated "very important" by 69% of Americans, compared to just 26% who felt the same about building his border wall. The former promise "to rebuild the nation's network of roads, bridges, and airports" exemplified "Trump's optimistic appeal to an earlier era," Smith writes, while the border wall signified "a turning away from America's founding myth of the open frontier, embracing instead reactionary populism and racist nationalism." Yet it was the one piece of infrastructure Trump actually delivered on, if only in small pieces and largely by pilfering funds authorized for other reasons. Smith calls it "a powerful example of how rhetoric successfully transformed reality."

Taylor's chapter is less about Trump's specific policies on race and more a historical analysis examining "how Trump's ascendance was rooted in the mainstream in the aftermath of the Black movement in the 1960s." She begins by pairing a description of Trump's campaign announcement, with its invocation of Mexican "rapists," with the nearly simultaneous racist murder of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, whose perpetrator reportedly declared, "I have to do it. You're raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go." The two claims had much in common, Taylor provocatively observes:

The invocation of rape, by Roof and Trump, was a graphic and brutal envisioning of white men as the feminized victims of rogue outsiders who have taken advantage of a flaccid state ill equipped for war, unable to protect its borders, soft on crime, and generally weak and unable to function effectively, the result being white Americans shoved from the security of their position in the social hierarchy, cast about, and unsure of what the future holds.

This was fantastical, of course, and Taylor proceeds to trace what happened in reality: First the trajectory from Nixon to Bush by which "conservative politics pushed the bounds of racist innuendo, framed as color blindness," and then the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. In that period, "more than 240,000 Black families lost their homes," while the Occupy Wall Street movement "sharpened the focus on systemic crisis, pivoting away from the fixation of the political class on the behavior and morality of the poor and the working class."

That also dovetailed with the publication of Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow," which "drew the public's attention to the systemic factors fueling young Black men's disproportionate arrests and incarceration," and coincided with a wave of videos showing the police killings of Black men. That led to the Black Lives Matter movement which marked, Taylor writes, "the emergence of a new Black Left" and coincided with the rise of a broader "new left" that created "pressures not only on liberalism but also on the Right to more sharply rebuke new demands for expanding government after years of neglect":

A space beyond the color-blind innuendo of the post-civil-rights era emerged for more direct and racist attacks on entire groups of people, cultures, and religion as a way for the Right to more clearly distinguish itself. This was not necessarily in reaction to these new movements, but developed in reaction to the Obama presidency, which became a dress rehearsal for a later brand of Trumpism.

Two more chapters on domestic policy have distinctly different flavors. Bathsheba Demuth's "Against the Tide: The Trump Administration and Climate Change" juxtaposes the international scientific community's call for "urgent and fundamental departure from business as usual" with the scant attention given to climate issues in the 2016 campaign, even facing the hottest year on record, intensified climate activism and 15 domestic weather events that each caused over $1 billion in damage. Demuth situates Trump's climate denialism in the framework of GOP anti-regulatory politics, paired with intensifying youth climate activism, epitomized by the Sunrise Movement and the climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. It isn't just Democrats or liberals who are concerned with climate issues, Demuth notes: In 2019, two-thirds of registered Republicans under age 35 "described themselves as worried about climate change, an 18-point increase over five years."

Demuth observes that the Trump administration's last-minute sale of Arctic oil and gas leases — which actually occurred on Insurrection Day, Jan. 6, 2021 — was supposed to bring in almost $1 billion to help pay for Trump's 2017 tax cuts. But major fossil-fuel companies declined to bid, and the sale netted less than $15 million. In many ways, she writes, this "was a fitting summation of Trump's climate change stance: hasty, unpopular, a policy relic from a different century.... It was emblematic of how out of sync Trump, and many in his party, had become."

A last-minute sale of Arctic oil and gas leases — which actually occurred on Insurrection Day, Jan. 6 — was meant to bring in $1 billion to help pay for Trump's tax cuts. It was a total bust, netting just $15 million.

In her chapter "The Gilded Elevator: Tech in the Time of Trump," Margaret O'Mara chronicles an epochal shift from the period when tech had been celebrated to one where it's criticized from all sides. Although Trump's use of social media clearly makes him a central figure in this narrative, O'Mara contextualizes him as very much a product of his environment, particularly the focus on "engagement," which is most effectively activated through fear and rage.

There have always been significant contradictions in the tech realm, as explored in Paulina Borsook's classic "Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech," but they have remained remarkably well-contained until recently. "America's high-tech regions may have been some of the most Left leaning in the country, but the industry itself was built by Reaganomomics, growing large in a four-decade era of tax cuts, deregulation, pro-employer labor laws, and a laissez-faire approach to anti-trust enforcement," O'Mara notes.

"These companies had long branded themselves as a nobler strain of capitalism, able to make money and do good at the same time," she continues, but that image crumbled during Trump's term. "Because of their market-gobbling business models and the fractious politics of Trump's America, these moguls and their companies faced stiff political headwinds from both the progressive left and populist Right," yet ended the Trump years "richer and more entrenched in American life than ever."

International affairs and foreign policy

Two of the three chapters on global matters are strikingly different, due partly to the subject matter — China and the Middle East — while the third, Jeffrey Engel's "No More Mulligans: Donald Trump and International Alliances," mentions but fails to develop a crucial theme that arguably could undergird this entire book: Trump's 1990 admission to Connie Chung, "I'm a non-trusting person."

Engel contrasts this with Dwight Eisenhower, who once said, "Patience, tolerance, frankness, absolute honesty in all dealings, are absolutely essential." Trump's fundamental distrust of everyone not only informed his foreign policy ("Our allies take advantage of us far greater than our enemies," "We must as a nation be more unpredictable" and so on), but everything else he has ever done — which is a crucial part of his appeal. It's axiomatic that you can't run a healthy society on this basis, still less forge successful international alliances. America's post-World War II success relied on leading broad coalitions, Engel notes, and "Trump's approach to international alliances and international organizations, therefore, eroded the very cooperative ethos that made the America of Trump's youth the world's greatest power in the first place."

After surveying the chaos Trump sowed, Engel concludes: "The world might have been willing to give the United States a new chance to revert back to the mean in 2009," as signaled by Barack Obama's utterly unearned Nobel Peace Prize, but "is unlikely to so fluidly offer a new chance this time around."

James Mann's "Trump's China Policy: The Chaotic End to the Era of Engagement" offers a clear structural framework — there were three phases to Trump's policy and three factions of China hawks among his advisers (as well as some free-traders) — while Daniel Kurtzer's chapter on Trump's Middle East legacy describes an episodic "series of tactical maneuvers without an underlying strategy." In both cases, Trump was driven primarily by wanting to repudiate prior policies, but different timeframes are highlighted: From Richard Nixon onward, in the case of China, and the post-9/11 period in the Middle East.

That latter decision avoids many of the darker complexities of America's history in the Middle East, or its ludicrous claims to support democracy. Kurtzer concludes with an unsurprisingly negative view of Trump's record, writing that he "left behind a more dangerous Middle East, in much worse shape than what he inherited," but does nothing to connect those failure to the longer trajectory of flawed American policy in the region.

In the case of China, Mann observes that "Trump often operated with bipartisan support" on policy questions, "because American views on China were changing." At the same time, "Trump's pronouncements on China also set loose some of the darker forces that he displayed elsewhere: demonization, conspiratorial thinking, and a strain of racism, along with some self-dealing for the family business."

Mann divides Trump's policy into three phases: a year of tentative maneuvering with the Chinese regime, followed by two years of negotiations which were abruptly upended by the COVID pandemic. His advisers were split between free traders who represented the waning continuity of bipartisan policy and three distinct factions of China hawks: those focused on trying to end China's restrictive trade practices; more political advocates "focused less on specific policy actions than on nativist rhetoric"; and the less visible but often more influential national security hawks at the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and Commerce Department.

Of course there was one more faction: the Trump family itself, particularly Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, whose "role and influence on China policy waned, after reports were published of some of their business dealings." Mann's framework makes more sense of Trump's China policies than anyone could reasonably expect and helps situate it within the broader reassessment of the U.S.-China relationship.

Countervailing forces and the end (for now)

The book's chapters dealing with the "forces that checked and weakened" Trump are necessarily more diverse — but perhaps not diverse enough. Beverly Gage's chapter, "'Nut Job,' 'Scumbag,' and 'Fool': How Trump Tried to Deconstruct the FBI and the Administrative State," is focused on Trump's battles against the FBI, for example, though it does provide some historical background along with a few references to his broader attacks on other federal agencies. But there's no discussion of Trump's widespread practice of appointing acting officials in order to wreak havoc both within the executive branch and in terms of congressional oversight.

Merlin Chowkwanyun's chapter on Trump's response to the COVID pandemic employs a carefully considered framework, but ultimately in a way that implicitly lets our ex-president off the hook. "I situate Trump's inaction in three contexts: state and local autonomy, cultures of antiexpertise, and resource misallocation and inequality," Chowkwanyun writes, and that proves to be a sensible analytical framework. He offers a sensitive nuanced treatment of the ways that anti-expertise culture can be constructive, as with the rise of the women's health movement or HIV/AIDS and environmental justice activism.

There's no way to separate Trump's culpability for the pandemic from "larger social forces," because he amplified and exacerbated those forces at every turn, making it impossible for others to act responsibly.

That nuance is absent at a higher level, however. After identifying the three contexts, Chowkwanyun introduces "the 60/40 question: If you had to apportion culpability, how much would you lay at the feet of Trump and how much at the larger social forces in which he operated?" In fact, there's no way to separate Trump's culpability from the larger social forces because he repeatedly amplified, intensified and exacerbated the worst of those forces at virtually every turn, making it difficult if not impossible for others to act responsibly. A better question might be: How much did Trump do to exacerbate existing problems, and how many did he create on his own?

The first section of Michael Kazin's chapter, "The Path of Most Resistance: How Democrats Battled Trump and Moved Left" is tellingly entitled "Herbert Donald Trump?" Kazin begins in the late 1970s, when "the Democrats' nearly half-century reign as the majority party ended." (Neither party has held a consistent majority since.) From that point onward, "the election of a Republican president and large GOP gains in Congress had always persuaded [Democratic] party leaders to shift rightward."

But Trump differed from his GOP predecessors by being uninterested in "developing a coalition that could forge a new Republican majority," preferring to cultivate his MAGA movement instead. This kept his popularity numbers in the low 40s, where "he could not scare Democratic politicians" into echoing him. Instead, many identified with "the Resistance," whose "inchoate nature became a strength instead of a liability," allowing for a wide range of expression.

Translating this into electoral politics was more complicated, of course. In the end, for Democrats the 2020 election "spelled relief instead of deliverance from the dilemma of how to build an enduring new majority," Kazin writes. If there is a winning formula for Democrats in the years ahead, he suggests it must lie in a rearticulation of "moral capitalism," a touchstone of successful Democratic Party politics throughout its history.

In "Impeachment After Trump," Gregory Downs notes both the supposed ubiquity of reverence for the Constitution and the harsh reality of constitutional destruction. Trump's Senate trials, he writes,

were, by and large, paeans to the Constitution, although often homages to quite different constitutional interpretations. Democrats voted for conviction to save the Constitution from abuse. Republicans claimed their acquittal honored the Constitution's high standard for impeachment.

In the end, Trump's acquittals "raise the specter that future political leaders will know that they have almost complete impunity as long as they retain the support of their base, no matter what the Constitution says."

The underdeveloped back story here is that since Nixon and Watergate, the GOP has increasingly become an anti-democratic party. Downs' account of how things have changed avoids stating that clearly, with both-sides commentary that is factually true but misleading: There was increased talk of impeachment under both Bush and Obama, with roughly similar polling support — but Bush was accused of fraudulently leading the nation into a disastrous war, whereas Obama was falsely accused of having been born in Kenya. In the Trump era, Downs writes, "It was clear that impeachment talk was central to U.S. politics and that actual impeachment might never work." In other words, the Constitution has been amended — if not nullified — without making any changes to its text.

This points to the larger problems that surround the Trump presidency. American democracy as we've known it is suffering a fundamental breakdown, unlike anything seen since the Civil War. While this volume provides a rich collection of historical insights, I was haunted by what's missing that might help address that threat: For instance, the broader comparative perspective found in Federico Finchelstein's "From Fascism to Populism in History," the longer cross-cultural historical perspective of Edmund Fawcett's "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition," the psychological dimensions found in Ian Hughes' "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy" or Steven Hassan's "The Cult of Trump," and the social, cultural and economic dynamics in Peter Turchin's "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History."

While "The Presidency of Donald J. Trump," has important insights to offer, it should be read alongside these works and others like them, if we truly want to engage with the most basic questions about whether our nation can long endure.

Manchin and Sinema are wrecking America — here's how to beat them

By opposing filibuster reform — thereby blocking voting rights protections — and Joe Biden's Build Back Better package, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have dramatically increased the odds that Republicans will take back both the House and Senate in 2022. More important still, Republicans may also entrench state-level autocratic power that could effectively subvert the 2024 presidential election. These two "centrists" haven't just weakened the Democratic Party, they've severely threatened the future of American democracy.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Yes, there's a dominant media narrative that blames all the Democrats' problems on progressives, but as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently on MSNBC's "11th Hour," it isn't progressives who have controlled the agenda as Biden's approval ratings have collapsed:

Biden has governed pretty much exactly the way they have asked him to. But the problem is that the way they have asked him to govern has been to slow down, not do too much, and we are now seeing the political consequences of not directly improving people's lives quickly.

Leaving aside Biden's relative neglect of executive action, no one has done more to slow things down than Manchin and Sinema, neither of whom has been transparent or consistent about what they want. In the Guardian, Robert Reich accurately identifies out-of-control egotism as a large part of the problem:

Before February of last year, almost no one outside West Virginia had heard of Manchin and almost no one outside Arizona (and probably few within it) had ever heard of Sinema.
Now, they're notorious. They're Washington celebrities. Their photos grace every major news outlet in America.
This sort of attention is addictive…. Once addicted, the pathologically narcissistic politician can become petty in the extreme, taking every slight as a deep personal insult.

These aren't just two willful individuals, as Reich makes clear: their narcissism is structurally fueled by how the Senate and the national media work. They illustrate America's structural political constraints in combination with both individual and collective narcissism.

RELATED: 2021's most despicable villains: Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema

America prides itself on being the world's oldest democracy, but given our institutional rigidity and reluctance to learn from others, that actually means our system is archaic and outdated. Many states borrowed from Switzerland and added the initiative process over a century ago, for example. But we've never even considered a federal version. The record is even worse with proportional representation, which is standard in many other countries and barely even visible here.

Far from being a beacon to the world of successful self-government, America offers a case study of failure. We're the only country in the world where mass shootings happen so regularly that only the special ones make national news, for example. But it's foolish to even dream of the Senate doing anything about it, even though universal background checks were supported by 84% to 89% in polls last year. We're almost the only country in the world without paid family leave, which two polls last October found 70% and 73% support for, at around the same time Manchin publicly nixed it from Build Back Better. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices had 83% support in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in early October, about a month before Sinema torpedoed the Democrats' efforts to include it in Build Back Better.

It's a systemic problem

This isn't just about a few high-profile examples, deeply troubling as they should be. The problem is systemic. A 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page covered 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 where public opinion could be matched to a clear policy outcome, and they found that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." Their study gave rise to a flurry of stories characterizing America as an oligarchy, echoing Occupy Wall Street's critique of the 1%.

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A more extensive follow-up study by Matt Grossmann, Zuhaib Mahmood and William Isaac painted a more nuanced picture, finding that "affluent influence does not arise through control of both political parties." Specifically:

The Republican Party and business interests are aligned across all issue areas and are more often aligned with the opinions of the richest Americans (especially on economic policy). Democrats more often represent middle class opinions and are uniformly aligned with advocacy groups.

So there's hope. But "more often" isn't good enough, as the current situation with Manchin and Sinema makes clear. And America remains far from being a truly healthy democracy.

"We have status-quo-biased institutions that limit (even popular) policymaking without bipartisan support and wide interest group support," Grossmann told me via email. "People sometimes blame this on the Democratic leadership, but Democrats regularly back liberal policy changes supported by the middle class, even if they don't pass."

As David Dayen wrote in October, in an article aptly titled, "The Case for Deliverism": "You cannot talk about the same popular items, fail to deliver on them, and expect the voting public to keep listening to you." For political scientists like Grossmann, there's a significant difference between the picture Gilens and Page presented and the one he and his colleagues have found. But for the ordinary voter, that's barely visible.

"Democrats are closer than ever to supporting institutional changes that would make the status quo more vulnerable," Grossmann said, "but they would probably need a sustained large national majority (that isn't forthcoming) to implement them because many of the pivotal elections are on conservative ground."

That's why Manchin and Sinema's obstructionism is so crucial: They're blocking even the possibility of building that Democratic majority. And their insistence on the need for bipartisanship as a transcendental virtue gives oligarchs a de facto veto. They talk in terms of building a broader consensus, but only within bounds set by the GOP and the forces of Big Capital, which is why popular policies like paid leave and negotiated drug prices get tossed overboard. This so-called consensus has been neglecting America's true needs for decades, if not generations.

When "consensus" is destructive

For a critical perspective on that consensus I reached out to two long-term thinkers, historian Jack Goldstone, author of the 1991 book, "Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World," which fundamentally changed our understanding of revolutions and the sources of political instability, and Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy."

Goldstone's book highlights the problem of "selfish elites" who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," as a troubling parallel to the preconditions of the French Revolution, the English Civil War and similar examples of state breakdown. Hughes in turn sees that problem as a driving force in the neoliberal order that's dominated our politics for almost 40 years.

To understand why revolutions happen at some times, but not others, Goldstone developed a model that combines measures of demographically-driven social stress from the mass population, the elites and the state to produce a single number, the "political stress indicator." State breakdown — and subsequent revolution — only occurs when that rises to dramatically high levels, as it is doing in America today.

Just weeks after Biden's 2020 victory seemed to provide an opportunity to change that trajectory, I interviewed Goldstone, who held out the hope that Biden and Republicans might be able to work together:

If Mitch McConnell works with moderate Democrats to move away from the cliff, that will strengthen the moderate Democrats and reduce the power of the more radical or progressive wing, because the moderates will be getting more done.

RELATED: What lies ahead: After the damage of the Trump era, can America avoid disaster?

That's clearly not how things have unfolded, so I reached out by email to see how his thinking had changed. "Things have deteriorated," he told me, but said he didn't find fault in the center. Democrats "should not have rushed a second impeachment [of Donald Trump] that was highly unlikely to yield a conviction," and progressives sabotaged Biden "by holding up the infrastructure bill for months while waiting for an unattainable Senate majority for their Build Back Better wish list."

I disagreed, but after some back-and-forth we found points of consensus, It's not centrism per se that's the problem, I argued, but the relative question: "Centrism compared to what?" Republican radicalization has created special conditions, given the nature of the U.S. political system, where the logic of "strengthening the middle" simply doesn't apply. Instead, a new middle has to be created.

In some cases, centrism can be harmful, Goldstone agreed:

I used to say this when Barack Obama was negotiating with the GOP. As the smartest guy in the room, he would identify the reasonable compromise position that a rational GOP would take with regard to the Democratic position and use that as his goal for negotiations. But that was unrealistic, because he was not dealing with a rational GOP, but an obstructionist GOP. When he tried to identify a reasonable middle ground, they saw that as a major concession and tried to jerk him further. It would have been better to start with his desired goal, hold out for as much as possible and concede as little as possible. Centrism just hurt his position.
I also agree that Sinema and Manchin may be motivated by outmoded ideas of centrism at best, and by selfish stubbornness based on ego at worst. But I don't much care why they are blocking Biden's program, I just want Biden to find some way to twist their arms to get an agreement.
You are right that centrism is pernicious — on climate change, a "compromise" position that makes token efforts to reduce greenhouse gases is not "prudent"; it is more akin to suicide. … My anxiety is that our whole political system is built on the need to find compromise and build broad coalitions among diverse views. It's not a parliamentary system, where a prime minister can command his party and always has a majority (or loses office).

How narcissism makes this worse

The need to find compromise and build broad coalitions is profoundly complicated by bad actors like Manchin and Sinema, who seem to be nurtured by collective narcissism, the belief that one's in-group is unique and exceptional. The Senate, which reflexively thinks of itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body," positively wallows in collective narcissism, so absorbed in preserving its supposed traditions its members seem incapable of seeing the broader destruction of democratic norms and practices sweeping the country outside their chamber.

As he argued against filibuster reform, Manchin proudly stood beside a large poster proclaiming his central argument: "The United States Senate has NEVER been able to end debate with a SIMPLE MAJORITY," which as Jon Skolnik noted here, is ridiculously false. Surely he must know this, as Skolnik pointed out:

The last three Supreme Court nominees — Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — were all confirmed with a simple majority … In fact, Manchin himself was the 51st senator to back Kavanaugh, single-handedly ending debate on the scandal-plagued judge's confirmation.

RELATED: Joe Manchin's revisionist history: Filibuster stands after Senate Democrat sides with Republicans

But many of Manchin's fellow senators believe such nonsense. It's part of their collective narcissistic delusion. In early January, Norman Ornstein wrote an op-ed demolishing "Five myths about the filibuster," of which Manchin's was No. 1. The others were:

  • The framers feared "the tyranny of the majority."
  • The filibuster fosters moderation and cooperation.
  • Keeping the filibuster now will preserve it in the future.
  • A rule change would make the Senate just like the House.

Ornstein isn't the first to refute these myths, but senators like Manchin simply ignore the refutations, because their narcissism and privileged position enable them to. The senate is an exalted body! Why should its members care what anyone else thinks?

Narcissists often fixate on ideas, presumed facts or proclaimed principles that no one else is allowed to criticize or challenge. They refuse to engage in a back-and-forth discussion, much less a good-faith debate. The reason is straightforward, therapist and author Elizabeth Mika (a contributor to "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump") explained. "A good-faith debate requires enough humility to acknowledge that we may not know everything and we could be wrong — a no-no for a narcissist who is convinced s/he is always right.

As Skolnik notes, Manchin himself previously blasted the filibuster, demolishing Ornstein's third myth. "We have become paralyzed by the filibuster and an unwillingness to work together at all, just because it's an election cycle," Manchin told the Charleston Daily Mail, in an article still posted on his Senate website. He even voted in favor of enforcing the "talking filibuster," even though it failed. If Manchin weren't such a narcissist, his past positions might be useful to argue against his current one. But not if he's convinced he's always right.

Besides, there are all those other senators who agree with him! (Who are almost all Republicans.) "Our collective narcissism [as a country] enables that of our Senate," Mika said. "It goes without saying that such an exceptional country will have an exceptional Senate and senators. Just spectacular and beyond reproach. Unlike anywhere else on Earth."

She continued: "I think this is a common delusion of grandeur of most, if not all, folks in power, and not just in the U.S. The higher one gets in the hierarchy of power, the more narcissistic one becomes, and the less in touch with reality. So much so that this narcissism turns psychopathic as it erases our capacity for empathy."

What is to be done?

With all that in mind, the question Goldstone focused on was simple: What can be done to get around Sinema and Manchin? He offered two ideas:

  1. Statehood for the District of Columbia, which will elect two Democratic senators, making Manchin and Sinema's votes no longer crucial.
  2. Offer a cabinet position to a Republican senator in a state with a Democratic governor. If they accept, the governor appoints a Democratic replacement.

That second proposition is wildly unlikely; in the current political climate, Republicans would never fall for it. But the first really shouldn't be. A new law review article argues that D.C. statehood should be seen as constitutionally required. Citing the 14th Amendment's Citizenship Clause, "as glossed by subsequent amendments," it argues: "All Americans living in the United States, including in D.C., are constitutionally entitled to claim state citizenship where they reside." Goldstone fears time could be running out:

There is a danger that, just as Arlington, Virginia, was once part of D.C. but returned to Virginia, that the GOP — if they take power — will change the "Capitol District" to just include the Mall/Capitol/White House federal lands, and seek to merge the rest of D.C. with Maryland, to end the D.C. statehood thing once and for all. I think it is imperative to try to bust the filibuster and get D.C. statehood now. But I don't think it will happen.

When Goldstone asked if I had any ideas, I mentioned Perry Bacon Jr.'s threefold strategy, starting with executive actions. Bacon called attention to the American Prospect's Day One Agenda, which I wrote about in November 2020. "The Biden administration has taken at least some action on about one-third of the 77 policies we outlined," the Prospect's David Dayen wrote last October. "But he has shied away from some of the more impactful ideas," such as canceling student debt for 42 million borrowers and giving millions more workers access to overtime pay.

RELATED: Congress can wait: How Biden can reshape our future with executive action

Second, Bacon wrote, "Biden should use his informal power aggressively," articulating "a compelling vision for 2022 America and push[ing] the country toward it." He can "provide rhetorical support to the kinds of changes that he wants to see" and also "seek out righteous fights," such as "hold[ing] events with election administrators and school board members who have been threatened by Trumpian crazies for just doing their jobs."

Third, "Biden should leverage his popularity and influence in blue America," focusing on "getting key planks of his agenda adopted at the city and state levels wherever they can," such as robust paid leave, child care and pre-K programs. "If Biden wants to take on problems such as internet misinformation, gun violence and college affordability, he can have enormous influence just meeting with big-city mayors, university administrators and tech industry figures, almost all of whom likely support him."

In short, as Obama did in his final two years, Biden needs to shift attention away from Republican senators and their two narcissistic sidekicks and focus on folks who will work with him:

I want Biden to save his presidency for the good of the country, in particular for the people who voted for him. He should stand with them, defending their rights and doing whatever he can to improve their lives, instead of wasting more months courting Republicans, conservative Democrats … and voters who are never going to support him.

Imagining the long term

This is not an electoral solution, Bacon says. But at least it plants seeds for the long term, which is the timeframe Ian Hughes helps illuminate, including the question of how we got here in the first place. Returning to the problem of elites who "protect their private wealth, even at the expense of a deterioration of state finances, public services, and long-term international strength," Hughes identified this as "part of the 'evil genius' of neoliberalism and the current social order":

[Margaret] Thatcher's revolution in the U.K. of encouraging everyone to buy their own home — as a means of ensuring everyone became a "stakeholder in society" — has resulted in the fact that the majority of people are now part of the "selfish elites" who resist any changes that threaten their private wealth.What has happened is that the majority have become stakeholders in their own private wealth at the expense of their contributions and commitment to collective society and public goods — including public services. And of course, the wealthier you are, the less reliant (and invested) you are on public services for health, education, security and so on. So the problem of "selfish elites" is not a problem with a minority (although there is clearly a very big problem with a small percentage of the ultra-wealthy because of their inordinate power). It is a problem of a substantial majority.

Here in America, George W. Bush pushed his vision of an "ownership society" at the beginning of his second term, with an initial focus on trying to privative Social Security. At the time, L. Randall Wray wrote a brief critique for the Levy Institute:

[T]he history of the Western world since the advent of liberalism has been marked by a gradual rise in the power of those who lack property. Some of the milestones in this progression include universal suffrage, regulation of business, and progressive taxation. Bush's ownership society proposals … would result in a partial reversal of the progress of the last 250 years. The reason is that, while Bush's plans would undoubtedly increase the choices and power of those who have property, they would fail to democratize ownership. Many gains to the wealthy would come at the expense of the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

In short, the rhetoric of ownership, freedom and choice can distract attention from the fact that, in reality, most people's everyday existence is becoming increasingly precarious. While this may remain more or less hidden for years, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious in times of crisis. The question of who is responsible all too easily becomes the subject of conspiracy theories, which narcissists and psychopaths excel at spinning out.

Hughes then responded to Goldstone's observation that "if the middle left and the middle right can work together, they keep the extremists marginalized," first made in 2020. It's only true "so long as the middle left and middle right are working together on policies and visions that can deliver for society," Hughes said. "The problem now, as Yeats would say, is that the center cannot hold":

This is true everywhere because of climate change and environmental destruction — our current carbon-based economic system is driving the planet to destruction. Our contemporary model of growth-driven unregulated exploitative capitalism has produced socially destabilizing levels of inequality and eroded democracy. And in the U.S. in particular, you need only to listen to cable news for 10 minutes to see how totally structurally dysfunctional the political system has become. To try to work from the center of that mess is to invest your efforts in a Herculean effort to stay on the road to destruction.
The most dangerous extremists right now are those who want to destroy democracy. There are no "both sides" in that struggle. The GOP has become an extremist anti-democracy party tapping into and stoking a wider anti-democracy movement. Trump was a symptom of that. He strengthened the anti-democracy faction of the GOP and made it respectable to be a fascist in America, so the problem of anti-democracy extremism is not going away. The problem is, there is no pro-democracy response with anything like the rage and intensity needed.

Finally, I asked Hughes to comment on the need to create a "new middle," one that did not seek to bully people into agreement, but could draw them into necessary conversations aimed at solving long-neglected problems. He replied:

Amitav Ghosh has a wonderful image for what is happening globally right now. Under normal circumstances, Ghosh says, we are able to ignore large parts of reality — poverty far away or out of sight, the warming of the planet that hasn't yet impacted us, the destruction of nature in far-away places, and so on. With these things safely hidden away, we can construct a narrative of our lives that is understandable, predictable, comfortable.
But with climate change, the impacts of the vast inequalities we have created, the hollowing out of our democracies, all of these neglected issues are rushing in from the background and crashing in upon us, destroying our cozy narratives. In such circumstances we need new "extremists" — visionaries who can see the world as it could be, activists whose lives are devoted to common good and not private wealth, agitators who remind us that our current systems of economics, politics, gender, militarism are deeply broken. We need, first and foremost, to recognize that the systems that make up our current civilization are finished. Only then can we start to build back better.

It may help to reflect on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema one last time. Their contrast with Biden — himself a life-long embodiment of centrism — is instructive. Biden had to shift his thinking, more in some ways than in others, in order to become a viable presidential candidate in 2020. Along with many other establishment Democrats, he proved that such adaptation was possible, without repeating many of the mistakes of the Obama era.

Blind spots remain, to be sure: There are failures of messaging, issue-framing and engagement with the progressive grassroots, which have left Biden and his party vulnerable not just to right-wing attacks but to anti-democratic "centrist" obstruction. But we can hope that the need to learn has been learned. Because Hughes is right: The center, as conventional politics understands it, cannot hold. A new center must be created.

How the states have become 'Laboratories of Autocracy' — and why it's worse than you think

There's a booming literature on the erosion of democracy in America, as well as around the world, but David Pepper's book "Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind the Lines" stands out as arguably the most important for three reasons: It brings the subject down to earth, connects democratic erosion to corruption and the decline in America's quality of life, and provides a wealth of ideas about how to fight back to protect democracy.

The book's subtitle is well-earned. Pepper is a former city councilman, mayor, county commissioner and head of the Democratic Party of Ohio, as well as a lawyer who has won important battles defending democracy in court. This is no armchair account — it reads more like a well-organized set of field notes from battles seen first-hand.

Perhaps most significantly, those battles have surprisingly little to do with Donald Trump. In an essay in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," therapist Elizabeth Mika described tyrannies as "three-legged beasts," supported by the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole. In my review of that book, I quoted her on the last of the legs:

Tyrants do not arise in a vacuum. ... It takes years of cultivation of special conditions in a society for a tyranny to take over. Those conditions invariably include a growing and unbearably oppressive economic and social inequality ignored by the elites who benefit from it, at least for a time; fear, moral confusion, and chaos that come from that deepening inequality; a breakdown of social norms; and growing disregard for the humanity of a large portion of the population and for higher values.

Pepper's book provides a detailed, nitty-gritty explanation of how the general conditions Mika describes have been created in Ohio and many other states across America. And when Pepper writes about how to fight back, it's about fighting back against the conditions that made Trump possible, if not inevitable. Of course Trump himself remains a danger, but Pepper's book provides a roadmap for action that addresses the roots of the problem. This conversation with David Pepper has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with your title. What's the story?

It was funny — it was when I thought of the term that the book came to me. I was going to tweet the words out, "You know, these states are no longer acting like laboratories of democracy, but laboratories of autocracy." I didn't send the tweet, because the minute I wrote it I thought, "Boy, there's a lot more to say than this tweet." And everything flowed from that.

Obviously it comes out of this age-old term that Justice Louis Brandeis made famous but that many have used, a very idealized notion of states doing good things that then become models for the country. Clearly that's been the case sometimes. But as I argue in the book, in our history sometime it's been the exact opposite. That's how we got Jim Crow. States have enough power that in the wrong hands they can do great damage, and the point of the title was to say that's what's happening now in very stark ways.

But both words matter. "Autocracy" matters, as these states are hacking away at pillars of democracy that could lead to autocracy. But the "laboratories" part matters too, because they're always learning, they're always improving. So they are functioning as laboratories. Until you start adding some accountability and pushing back, they'll just keep going. So my hope is that "autocracy" wakes people up, but "laboratories" is a really important part of that title because it explains how they operate.

The first story you tell in your book is about a horrendous traffic jam caused by an Ohio secretary of state who tried to make voting more difficult in 2020 by limiting ballot drop-boxes to one per county. Why begin there?

I've been fighting the voting rights battle in Ohio for a number of years. The worst is still the purging of voters, but to have a secretary of state intentionally cause long traffic jams for the form of voting that he knew minorities and Biden voters were using, and lying over and over again about what the law actually, was such a troubling thing. And this was not your right-wing, Trump-type secretary of state. He had held himself out as more moderate.

So I tell the story because you look at the traffic jams that his one-drop-box-per-county policy created, and anyone with a commonsense response would say, "Don't ever do that again." But in a world of "laboratories of autocracy," as I tell in the story, the state legislature of Ohio, seeing those jams, began pushing for bills to have traffic jams forever by making that not just a policy decision, but state law. And what do we see at the same time? States around the country looked at those traffic jams and saw the effect on — let's be clear — Black voters waiting in long lines. So now we have the same effort in other states to minimize drop boxes and to do what happened here: Put the drop boxes where people are already voting early in person, which creates the maximum congestion possible. So it's a great example of how they behave as laboratories against democracy.

As you lay it out, the heart of the problem is the relative invisibility of state representatives, combined with their great power, which the public may not be aware of. Two questions: Why are state legislatures so powerful? And why is there so little awareness?

It's the toxic combination: great power and total anonymity, at least for the average citizen. The power comes all the way back, from the founding. State legislatures were given a lot of power over our day-to-day lives — economic policy, energy policy, criminal justice, education, the things that we care about. Statehouses have a huge effect on those.

But in our system the Constitution and our overall balance of powers also give statehouses enormous power over not just state elections but federal elections. They draw the district lines, as we're seeing right now. They set the rules of elections. They have control, to some degree, over how the Electoral College is calculated. It's a huge amount of power. It's something James Madison worried about: My gosh, we're giving statehouses a huge amount of power. If they're in the wrong hands, undemocratic hands, they can threaten our entire nation's democracy.

What about the lack of awareness?

Most people can't name their state representative. They don't know what's happening in their capital city. Very few of the things that are happening are covered. You only have so much bandwidth as a citizen, so you know the president, the governor, maybe your congressman and your mayor. These people get lost anyway: the capital city is normally some distance away, these elections don't get nearly the attention. It just isn't on the radar.

And journalism is eroding too. You used to have more robust statehouse bureaus that would cover the ins and outs. You had local papers in the small towns and big cities. It all adds up to very low information about these places that are a source of great power. For those wanting to do damage, it's exactly what they want.

You write, "If the average voter doesn't know or care what state representatives can do, insiders and interests know exactly what they can do. That's dangerous." So what are some examples?

In Ohio, you see everything from massive subsidies given to the right players, and people getting in line for "state business," putting that in quotes — I talk about for-profit charter school scams in Ohio — who have figured out that they can get into the revenue stream, pull out hundreds of millions or more. You see individual legislators able to provide preferential tax treatment: The payday lenders got a sweetheart policy when they were helping certain legislators. I walk through all the ways that these legislators can just give huge favors.

The general theme of these places, outside of extremism and anti-democracy, is a massive transfer of public assets and resources to private insiders. Public school dollars go to the private school donors who are starting scam for-profit schools. In other states, It's the privatization of the energy grid, so in Texas they couldn't even keep things going in the wintertime. Small towns not getting any infrastructure, because public dollars have been raided by the state to give out as tax cuts at the very high end.

If you add it all up, there's a massive movement of public resources and dollars to private insiders. That's why one thing that comes with broken government is a rapid decline in public outcomes. In Ohio, we're living it. A great state is finding itself ranked last or close to last in everything from higher education attainment to health care. It's because their M.O. with the statehouse is to keep the private people happy and use public resources to do it, year after year.

I'd meant to ask you about how the decline in the quality of life is tied to the erosion of democracy. That's something that's completely disconnected in the national discourse. We've been hearing that Democrats' focus on voting rights takes away attention from kitchen-table issues, for example. But that's not the case on the ground, is it?

My book is trying to say that everyone suffers from this. It may in the short term feel good, if you have a majority. But as I explain later in the book, towns are dying because of the privatization of everything. There no winners from this, long-term. Everyone loses when you lose your democracy. When you go to small towns in Ohio that are largely Republican, they are suffering as much from lack of democracy as larger cities. Because they're not getting the health care, the infrastructure, anything else they need. And so ending gerrymandering actually would lift long-term outcomes in all these places, because these people would all of a sudden have to compete as well. They couldn't just give everything to the private players without any accountability, which right now is what they're doing.

Another category you discuss is overturning local governance. That's where the anti-democracy aspect blatantly comes to the fore, preventing people locally from passing laws. Could you expand on that?

Statehouses are the Achilles' heel of national governance. When local governments who are more attentive to public concerns pass laws about gun violence, for example, the statehouses have the ability to stop those local governments from being responsive. What they've done in Ohio on issue after issue — whether it's raising the minimum wage or gun reform — is that if the city of Cincinnati or the city of Cleveland or someone else tries to do something on those issues, they then pass a law that — by a misreading of Ohio law, I would say —allows them to stop any efforts to deal with that issue at a local level. So it's undemocratic in another way: Don't reflect your citizens' views at the state level and also don't allow local governments to represent their citizens either.

Just to be clear, on almost every issue I'm talking about they are doing the opposite of what their states actually want. Don't be fooled by the fact that Ohio voted for Trump by eight points. This is a state that supports common sense gun reform. This is a state that supports Roe v. Wade. It's a state that supports doing something on climate change. I can show you the polling on that. But the statehouses are basically places that, by protecting themselves through election rigging, can put in place deeply unpopular policies and never worry about being held accountable.

It's not just a problem with the special interests inside the state with help from the national GOP. There's also national organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the NRA and others.

These national players, the Koch Brothers, ALEC and others have weaponized the weakness of statehouses to serve their national agenda. They started out doing that with social issues, but then figured out it can be done, with even greater effect, on their economic interests. I go through how they've been crushing rural broadband for years: They don't want local governments to do it because they want someday to do it. The way I describe it is that they've privatized the legislative process.

So many of the laws that are being passed — attacking voters, gerrymandering, the abortion laws like in Texas — are being cooked up in ways that are shared all across the country. And every time one doesn't succeed, they learn from it and correct for it, and then other states will do the corrected form. And every time one of their approaches does succeed, other states will then model from it. So they've turned this into a national effort that people should find very worrisome.

One thing you talk about is how how people can go through a whole legislative career and never really have a competitive election, beyond maybe winning their first primary. What do people need to know about that?

It's so much worse than people realize. In Ohio we have a 99-person statehouse, and Republicans have rigged it so that they'll have somewhere in the low to mid 60s of seats, no matter what. In 2018, it was 50% Republican, 49% Democrat statewide and they still had a supermajority of seats, and 60 of those seats have averaged a double-digit win, most of those by 20 points or more. So a strong majority of these people have never been in an election that you and I would say was a real election. Maybe they won a primary at one point, but many were appointed, and never even had the primary.

People just don't understand how bad it is. We're talking about, for the first time since back before the civil rights era, people whose entire existence in power has been devoid of democracy. They haven't talked to swing voters, they've never worried about the next election. You literally have an entire generation of people in charge of statehouses who have never experienced democracy the way I did when I ran and won my races.

Everything they've done in this world absent democracy is the opposite of what you do in a robust democracy to succeed. They help private interests, get close to the line in terms of corruption, if not over it. They get more and more extreme to avoid a primary. There are the terrible public outcomes that we talked about. Every one of those things works just fine in their world, whereas in a world of real democracy it would guarantee you lose your election.

That Texas law on abortion is extreme, it's deeply unpopular. If you were in a fair district, you would lose. That happens on guns and everything else. The point is these people in a non-democratic world are acting a certain way, and if they were in a real democracy they'd lose for sure. So what are they gonna do, forevermore? Keep that real democracy from arising, because that would mean they'd lose their power. It's gotten so much more warped than I think even Karl Rove would have imagined 12 years ago, when he rigged these districts. We're talking about a completely different mindset than most people think about with democracy.

This leads into something else I wanted to ask about, how they have increased power in part by taking it away from governors, secretaries of state, from the independent judiciary. What's happening here that don't people realize?

This gets back to how much power they have that's hidden. They have levers both political and budgetary, and many can override vetoes, That's allowed them to run over the likely moderating influences of statewide officials. To win as governor in Ohio in the past you had to be more moderate, more like George Voinovich or Bob Taft. You weren't a right-wing nut. People who run for those offices try to be more moderate, and they get run over by the statehouse.

Our current governor tried to be reasonable on COVID for a few months, but they stopped everything he tried. They almost impeached him. Now he's as irresponsible as any of the others because the statehouse basically has too much control over the key functions of government. So statehouses end up being able to to run roughshod over governors, over the people the public actually knows. They don't realize that the unknown statehouse member, in the end, is trumping the governor again and again.

Recently, Democrats have done a very good job and won three of the last four Supreme Court races in Ohio. I'm proud of this. What did the legislature do? A few months ago they changed the rules of how you elect justices, to add party ID to the ballot, on the thinking that if Trump's on the ballot and every judge's party is on the ballot, then they can't lose.

So they change the rules to undermine other statewide officials. After Democrats won North Carolina in '16 and they won Michigan and other states in '18, and even after this Raffensperger guy in Georgia stood up to Trump, what happens? The legislature immediately starts attacking the powers of those other officials, obviously if they're Democrats, but even if they're a Republican that doesn't agree with them. We saw that again in Georgia where they stripped the secretary of state's power away.

They're not only gerrymandering and being extreme for themselves, they're literally going after any threat to their power that arises, be it state courts, governors of either party, or other officials like secretaries of state. It's truly disturbing behavior.

As you make clear, in Ohio there was the Tea Party wave of 2010, in reaction to the Obama coalition, where they took action to undermine that coalition's electoral power, and similar things are happening now in response to the 2020 election.

It's why I resist when people say, "The Big Lie is making statehouses act crazy." No — they've been doing this long before the Big Lie. When there's an election they don't succeed in, they learn from their failure and then do everything they can to change the thing that cost them that election. It's not just about the presidency, it's about their own self-preservation.

In 2008, after the Obama coalition in Ohio won the election for Obama, it also won Democrats the statehouse. That really peeved them. They had gerrymandered the statehouse and Obama comes in with this huge coalition of urban young voters, electing Obama and elects a Democratic statehouse. The minute they have a chance in 2011 to tear apart that coalition — not by a good campaign, but through changing the laws — they do it. They're purging voters left and right, and despite huge errors in the purging process, they never stop. They attack early voting again and again. For years they targeted the key constituency groups that made up the coalition that had defeated them, and by 2016 it was clear just how well that worked.

I go through it in the book. The margins of victory in the large counties that made sure that Obama won — particularly the ones around Cleveland — were dramatically reduced because of how many fewer voters were actually registered by the time they were done with their purging through 2016, and curbing early voting in what was called Gold Week, where you could register and vote at the same time. Tens of thousands of voters were impacted there. Hillary Clinton may have lost Ohio for a lot of reasons, but it made her journey in Ohio far more difficult that they had taken the legs out of that Obama coalition.

So they learned their lesson for 2020, same thing. Many people voted early, using drop boxes. Drop-box voters were largely voters of color, largely Biden voters. What do they do? Same as 2011, they immediately target the way that those who vote against them vote. Get rid of drop boxes or add the kind of requirements that led to the traffic jams here. They will do everything they can to isolate what cost them an election and change the laws so it won't hurt them the next time.

That's exactly what they're doing with Jan. 6. That was another failure. What are they gonna do? Figure out why they failed. They have three years to fix it. They're going to go about fixing it through statehouses.

Right. That's already well under way. How would you describe what it looks like?

I think it's a combination of things. The bottom line is, here's what it won't look like: people storming the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2025. What did they learn about Jan. 6? It was too chaotic. It was too late. It looked too illegitimate. The key to all this is that it has to look legitimate for them to really win. Storming a building does not look legitimate.

But what were they right about? That state legislators play a big role when it comes to the Electoral College. Not just through through traditional voter suppression, in rigging these districts through gerrymandering. They can also try different ways to maximize their chance of winning the electoral college long before you get to Jan. 6 so it looks legitimate, unlike Jan. 6 did last year.

One thing that happened after 2012 is that they proposed — of course, only in the states where it would benefit them — that you calculate the Electoral College based on congressional district, not the overall popular vote. That would flip Michigan, in a world of gerrymandered districts, at least, basically superimposing gerrymandering onto the Electoral College count. Wisconsin would also be a great example. It's a very gerrymandered congressional map that would take a state where a Democrat wins overall but if you go to the congressional districts, Republicans win the electoral vote majority. There is some precedent for that right now, because you get votes in Maine and Nebraska out of congressional districts. There's also a potential legal challenge going back to the one person, one vote principle. But that's something they've already talked about and there have been bills proposed in some states to do that.

That's something we've seen floated in the past. I actually wrote about it in 2014. But there are new and even wilder ideas you talk about.

This was fringe only a couple years ago, the idea that legislators can basically do whatever they want when it comes to the Electoral College. If there was a close election, and they claimed, like Trump tried to do, that it was illegitimate, the legislature could simply say, "We think that's the wrong result, we're going to change the outcome." If you read some of these new Supreme Court justices' thinking, going back to Clarence Thomas in Bush v. Gore, that was sort of what this John Eastman memo was about: A state legislature can step in and determine the Electoral College vote, and no one can challenge it. I guarantee you, that sort of legal thinking is currently being circulated around the states, and some are pushing it forward as law itself, and potential secretaries of state are running on it.

So they're going to do the traditional stuff. But they're also going to do everything they can to figure out this Electoral College stuff again before you have a vice president counting the votes on Jan. 6. That's why we need to be ready for the next battle. I'm glad we honored and thought seriously about the anniversary of Jan. 6, but the best way to think about it is to stop the next version, which will be far more sophisticated than what we saw one year ago.

That's a good lead-in to talking about the third part of your book, which is about ways of fighting back. And you start with talking about the Guarantee Clause, which not enough people know about.

It's the only part where I risk being academic. My goal was to make sure this is very readable, but every single thing I just talked about was of great concern to the founders. I know some people will say, "Well, the founders did terrible things," and yes, they did. But they also wrote the Constitution. They thought "rich interests" or monarchical interests would take the very powers I described in statehouses and use them to take over the country. They were so worried that they put in the Constitution something called the Guarantee Clause, which literally says, "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government." It's in the same area as protecting against foreign invasion. Meaning the federal government must step up and protect that every state in this country has essentially what we call today a small-d democratic government.

To me, that should shape what happens in Congress. This is not just some other policy debate. When you take an oath to the Constitution of the United States as a U.S. senator or House member or president, you are taking an oath to guarantee that every state in this country has democratic governance, just like you'd stop a foreign invader. That's why when I watch this debate over the filibuster, it shapes the debate. "Shall" is the strongest word in law, "guarantee" is about as strong as it gets.

So when I watch these people fuss about, "Well we we can't do it unless a bunch of Republicans do it," no! Your oath is your oath. You took an oath to uphold the Guarantee Clause, which means if there are states in this country who are falling away from democracy — and many of them are, like mine — you have to do something about it, or you're violating your oath to the Constitution. There is no better grounding to carve out the filibuster for voting rights and democracy than the Guarantee Clause. It's telling you that, as a senator, you have a duty to protect democracy.

So you have like 30 steps in terms of things that can be done, and that's too many for us to go into here. Pick one or two themes, because there are some echo in different steps in different ways.

I read a lot of books. and I normally put them down and they might have been interesting but I don't do anything. So I really wanted to say, "If you put this book down and don't do anything different, I've failed." I try to break this down into not just the big stuff but something people can do every single day in their corner of the world to lift up democracy, because that's what it's going to take.

I start with the federal stuff and it's essential, but not enough, that the federal government protect voting rights. The Freedom to Vote Act in the Senate right now does so much. I also say the federal government has to do some other things that I won't go into here, but there's no protection against corruption in states are locked in by one party, so we need a lot more corruption enforcement from the feds in states like Ohio. A lot of the way democracy is being attacked is actually through substance, like that crazy law in Texas. I think we need to federalize rights that are getting caught up in these antidemocratic efforts, be they labor rights, be they Roe v. Wade.

But then then I'm going to the next level down, which is not through law, but politics. I believe we have to really rethink politics right now, and those for democracy — and I don't think that's only Democrats, although Democrats are the big part of it — have to reorient our thinking. This is a long battle for democracy, the way that John Lewis and the suffragists thought about it way back when. It's a long battle.

What does that entail?

It should dramatically change how we fight that battle. We will lose that battle if all we do on our side is fight in swing states every couple of years for certain Senate seats and Electoral College votes, while they're fighting democracy in 50 states every year. We have to rethink our approach, to do what they're doing. Democracy must be protected in every state, every year, in every office that has some lever over democracy. We have to make that adjustment.

That sounds hard, and one thing we must do is decide what resources must follow that adjustment. If you took a rounding error of the billion dollars spent to win a presidential election, for example, and divided that up among 50 states over four years, you would actually have serious investment in those statehouse races and other races. Now my guess is some of those big donors would say "This is crazy. We can't do that and not give to the presidential race." And my answer would be, "That's what the Koch brothers did, and it worked." Not only will you protect democracy much more effectively, you'll do better in the presidential race down the road as you built up some support.

That's already been proven in Georgia, hasn't it?

Stacey Abrams lost in 2018, but remember her speech where she didn't concede, but she acknowledged she had lost? She said "We made progress," and people probably looked at her and went, "What? You didn't win!" Well, she knew she had registered more voters and inspired more voters — every door-knock was a new voter excited. She was right, and two years later Georgia was blue. Stacey Abrams has thought about democracy as a long game in Georgia her entire life, and that's why she succeeded. She didn't give up on everything after one bad cycle. She knew it was a long game.

A long game also means that individual candidates at the statehouse level, for example, even if they lose are contributing, and they need to be rewarded and praised for that. Too often we let a candidate run in a bad district and when they lose we walk away. If it's a long game and they're on the side of democracy, they need to be celebrated. Their run could in the long run be the difference in lifting other candidates. I go through many examples of how that happens.

In a big-picture frame, there's a lot of disagreements to be had on a lot of issues, but don't let disagreements on those issues lead to civil wars among those who all support democracy. One of the things I go through in the book is that so much of what I'm talking about are lessons learned from what led to Jim Crow. Going into Jim Crow, a lot of people who agreed on stopping things in the South — stopping the KKK and the resurgence of white supremacy — let all their disagreements on other issues get in the way of that, and they ultimately lost.

My point here is, if there are Republicans we disagree with that support democracy, welcome aboard. We'll figure the other stuff out later. But if you're for democracy, we need to work together. That's why I've actually really enjoyed — for all the criticism, the Lincoln Project has been very good at spreading the word about what I'm trying to say. That also means that progressives and moderate Democrats, yeah, we disagree on the issues. But if we're on the same page on democracy, to unify there is much harder than any disagreement you allow to get between you.

I worry that we're going to get into 2022 and we know the Senate seats and House seats are important, but if we don't do everything else we're not getting to the root cause, which is the statehouses, the most undemocratic institutions that eating away at everything else.

There's new talk of, "Well, we won't pass a voting rights act, but we'll do the Electoral College Act." If we fall for that, it's because we're not thinking about the long game. If we say, "Yeah, we'll correct for the presidential election, but we'll let you get away with all the attacks on voting rights at the state level again," that would again be a perfect example where the other side is protecting their long game, but we fall for the thing that deals with what we've always cared about, almost blindly and solely, which is the presidency. Not seeing the long game gives them another massive victory.

You conclude with a chapter on what individuals can do. As you describe it, there's quite a lot.

Each person and organization, I believe, needs to figure out how they can add to their own personal mission statement or their organizational mission statement how, in everything they do every day, they try to lift democracy. Add that to your New Year's resolution. If there are companies that are helping democracy, not hurting it, spend your resources there. Don't go around the paywall if there's a state paper that's covering the statehouse well. Thank God! You're lucky they're there. Subscribe! Keep them going! Reward those who are lifting democracy!

If you're in Georgia or Ohio, get involved in registering voters. If you run a homeless shelter, are you registering everybody who comes to your shelter every time they come through there? If you're the mayor of the city and you run rec centers and health clinics, are you registering people? They're attacking your voters through purging. You have an obligation to lift those voters up. Everyone can play a role. We know that there are people attacking democracy every single day. We love that we have people like Stacey Abrams out there protecting it. But we can't we can't leave it all to her.

It also means figuring out who your state representative is and never letting a state rep going unchallenged, especially if they're attacking democracy. There's a whole array of things everyone can do to push back for democracy. They may just think it's bigger than them, but there's steps that everyone can do, and if we all did them together it would make a massive difference.

I like to end by asking, what's the most important question I didn't ask? But in this case I'm aware of so many. I'd rather ask if there's one more thing you'd like to emphasize.

Well, the other thing we all can do is wake other people up to it. I've gotten so many responses to my book like, "Oh my God, it's a lot worse than I realized!" The more you can educate everyone you know — in your family, on your bandwidth — please do it. Because I'm worried sick that people just aren't seeing this for what it is. If you think it's bad, the truth is, it's worse than you can actually see.

Theocrats are coming for the school board — but parents are starting to fight back

"Masks are not healthy for most people. Just the bacteria that grows in them is causing more issues than any issues masks would prevent," Nicole Konz claimed in a Facebook post last February. On Nov. 2, she was elected to the school board of Academy District 20, near Colorado Springs, a district serving more than 23,000 students. It wasn't an accident. There was a lot of money and power behind her. And Konz wasn't alone.

This article first appeared on Salon.

The district's other new board member was Aaron Salt, already the board chair of a nearby charter academy, who said after his election, "We know that mask usage increases mental health problems and issues. ... That's not something that I'm willing to sacrifice." They were just two of 28 school board candidates elected across Colorado with the backing of a Christian nationalist organization — the Truth and Liberty Coalition (TLC) — whose ambitions are "national, international and eternal," as Frederick Clarkson wrote at Religion Dispatches.

Pandemic restrictions and the moral panic over "critical race theory" are the most recent hot-button recruiting tools integrated into a broader menu of carefully nurtured grievances reflected in TLC's five-issue "Christian Voter Guides," under the headings "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports" [sic], "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns." What's missing is even the pretext of concern for academic content or achievement, budgeting or any other traditional responsibility of a school board.

Clarkson wrote that these school board races in Colorado "were the pilot project in a long-term campaign by the Truth and Liberty Coalition and its de facto training institute, nearby Charis Bible College, in Woodland Park, a suburb of Colorado Springs."

Andrew Wommak, who founded the unaccredited Bible college in 2014, co-founded TLC in 2017 along with Lance Wallnau, preeminent promoter of the "Seven Mountain Mandate," a manifesto for evangelical Christians to conquer and claim dominion over seven key facets of life: education, religion, family, business, government, entertainment and media. So while they claim to speak out as Christians and to express a broadly Christian worldview, they have something radically different in mind from anything America has ever known.

"The 'biblical worldview' is code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society, in tension or at odds with secular institutions," Clarkson told Salon. "It's not the siloed issues. It's the whole enchilada."

Wallnau was also one of Donald Trump's earliest and most prominent evangelical endorsers. His book "God's Chaos Candidate" was published during the 2016 campaign, just a week before the "Access Hollywood" tape became public. One prominent TLC board member is the evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton, whose 2012 book "The Jefferson Lies," which claimed to debunk claims by legitimate historians about Thomas Jefferson's secular, pluralistic worldview, among other things, was recalled by its evangelical publisher for its numerous falsehoods. (The book was later republished by Glenn Beck, and sold very well to his far-right followers.)

RELATED: Right-wing authoritarianism is winning — but higher education is where we can fight back

TLC and its allies' ability to turn out agitated and misinformed voters in low-turnout elections is yet another ominous sign about the electoral landscape Democrats face in the 2022 midterms. In El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, Republican turnout was 47.3%, compared to 37.6% for Democrats and 28.9% for independent voters.

This was not an isolated phenomenon. Clarkson writes that as in "past waves of fresh political action, there are other organizations doing similar things for similar reasons, often in close collaboration. Their impact is undoubtedly greater than the sum of their parts in the movement." He specifically cites a group called Church Voter Guides, launched earlier this year by Steve Holt, former pastor of a Colorado Springs megachurch, that targeted some of the same races. TLC issued a press release in early October promoting the voter guides of both groups, and casting the election as "a referendum on parental rights."

On the national level, Business Insider noted the involvement of the 1776 Project PAC, which won all 11 of its targeted Colorado school board races, and a majority of the 55 races it targeted nationwide — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Kansas — focusing on the bogeyman of critical race theory. Clarkson also noted the existence of similar groups in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas, primarily reacting to school closures.

Clarkson also mentioned the "School Board Boot Camp" run by FRC Action, the political action arm of the Family Research Council. "Calling these trainings 'boot camps' and illustrating them with military boots," he said, "is consistent with the theme that they are in a war, and that it is more than metaphorical and is more than a little ominous, post-Jan. 6."

In an earlier "boot camp," held in June, FRC president Tony Perkins warned attendees, "We need to get worked up" about "what is happening across the nation, the indoctrination taking place." He related his first experience of so-called indoctrination: "In elementary school I had encountered one of those newly-minted leftist teachers that was a part of the left's long march through America's institutions, and began teaching the theory of evolution as fact," he recalled. "When I wouldn't yield to it, I found myself punished." He didn't say what the alleged punishment was.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

This is how these people think: Teaching science that was revolutionary 160 years ago, but that undergirds all of biology today, is evidence of an organized leftist takeover of America's institutions — all of which need to be "taken back for God" (as in the "Seven Mountains Mandate"). Of course this requires a specific version of God, since many millions of Americans — including many evangelicals — have no trouble reconciling religion and science. For those who refuse to do that, any scientific advance whatever can potentially be construed as sinister heresy, and the more firmly the science is established, the more vast and sinister the Satanic plot must be. That's the basic conspiracy-theory logic that drives Perkins, his organization and a wide range of like-minded allies.

"The FRC boot camps reveal how the school board campaigns fit in the evolving coalition that constitutes the religious and business right in the age of Trump," Clarkson told Salon via email. "The June boot camp has presentations from inside-the-Beltway conservative think tankers as well as ostensibly grassroots parents' groups. While the Colorado campaigns appeared to focus on evangelicals, the June boot camp also features Mary Hasson, a conservative Catholic from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, underscoring the Catholic dimension of the historic and evolving coalition."

A presentation by a Virginia parents' group at a different post-election "mentioned an alliance with a Patriot group, Bedford County Patriots," he said. "We saw a similar alliance in Colorado as well."

That was a reference to another group, FEC United ("Faith, Education, and Commerce") that drew significant local media attention, particularly from the Colorado Springs Independent, where Heidi Beedle reported that "FEC United has organized protests against masks, vaccines and critical race theory at school board meetings across the Front Range. [Founder Joe] Oltmann has stated on his podcast, Conservative Daily, that teachers are 'recruiting kids to be gay' and that LGBTQ teachers should be 'dragged behind a car until their limbs fall off.'"

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Beedle also reported that FEC United's board of directors included John Tiegen, "a Marine veteran and Benghazi survivor who was at a sniper position during a speech given by UCCS professor Stephany Rose Spaulding in June 2020. Tiegen is also the head of FEC United's armed wing, United American Defense Force."

Then there's the dark money. In late October, NBC affiliate KOAA reported the influx of $130,000 in dark money from Colorado Springs Forward to the Springs Opportunity Fund, which spent massively in all three districts targeted by TLC. But final figures from the Colorado secretary of state went much higher. Slate advertising in support of Konz, Salt, and incumbent board member Thomas LaValley eventually totaled $132,411, while spending in all districts exceeded $350,000.

"They had robocalls, Google ads, text messaging ads, YouTube ads, and even Hulu and Discovery+ ads for conservative candidates throughout El Paso County," Rob Rogers, a core organizer with BIG FA$HION, a playfully-named parent's group active in Academy District 20, told Salon.

Even with this unprecedented level of outside influence, the situation on the ground was more fluid than the turnout numbers suggest. "If we would have had another month, I think that we would have seen some different results," said Bernadette Guthrie, another BIG FA$HION parent organizer. "What a passionate group of parents can do in a short amount of time was just awesome," said Lara Matisek, another core organizer.

"We went from going to parent-teacher conferences to jumping into the mix of starting a political expenditure committee and learning a lot like in the process," Rogers added.

TLC targeted 17 school districts across the state, with its success heavily concentrated in the Colorado Springs area (nine seats in three districts) and nearby Woodland Park (four seats in one district), which is home to Wommak's church and college, plus three seats each in the town of Elizabeth and the western Colorado city of Grand Junction.

Elsewhere its results were mixed, but in this case, "success elsewhere cannot be measured entirely by the score," Clarkson noted, pointing specifically to how TLC's voter guides and candidate framed the races around a set of five culture-war issues and away from "the traditional wonkery of school budgets, curricula, and test scores."

This aligns with a decades-old agenda of attacking public education, according to Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism," and "The Good News Club," an examination of the religious right's efforts to infiltrate and undermine public education. It also makes sense of the prominent role played by anti-mask and anti-vaccine hysteria.

The "division and chaos" this kind of political activity "provokes in public schools and at school board meetings is not an unintended consequence," Stewart told Salon. "It is precisely the point, and it is of a piece with the movement's longstanding hostility to public education. The Rev. Jerry Falwell made the agenda clear in 1979 when he wrote, 'I hope to see the day when there are no more public schools. Churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.'" That aptly describes the Truth and Liberty Coalition's agenda today.

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But it's only one facet of that agenda. "The religious right's animosity toward public education is just one part of a general assault on the foundations of modern liberal democracy," Stewart said. "Undermining confidence in our public institutions, in science and critical thinking, and in the social compact that public schools represent is a way of delegitimizing the process of rational policymaking. The growth of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism in education and in society lets powerful religious and economic leaders, along with their political allies, pretend that they represent the will of the people even as they advance their own interests."

That "concerted and organized effort to tear down public education" was a shocking discovery, the Colorado Springs organizer Rob Rogers said. Stewart observed that it may be shocking but is nothing new:

In certain conservative circles, the phrase "government schools" has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous. It is characteristic of a movement with longstanding hostility to public education, a hostility with deep roots. The Reconstructionist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony, whose ideas influenced a number of movement leaders, took an attack on modern democratic government right to the schoolhouse door. His 1963 book, "The Messianic Character of American Education," argued that the "government school" represented "primitivism" and "chaos." Public education, he said, "basically trains women to be men" and "has leveled its guns at God and family."

The Colorado Springs school board races provide a microcosm of how this is playing out today. "The word 'unprecedented' is used a lot. I don't think this is anything compared to what we've seen in the past," organizer Guthrie said. "Instead of hearing about real issues, in terms of testing scores and mental health in schools, violence in schools and teacher shortages, instead of hearing about real issues that plague our district, the local news cycle was masks and critical race theory. There was no real talk of any real issues by the seven self-proclaimed conservative candidates. To try to overcome that and consistently change the conversation and reroute it to the real issues was something we struggled with throughout the entire process."

The church voters guide in Colorado Springs "was heavily, heavily an influencer" in the school board races, Rogers said. Its influence "was really hard for us to overcome," Guthrie agreed. "It was heavily distributed through all the church communities, targeted at an older, conservative, retiree population who don't even have kids in the schools…. It was really difficult for us overcome."

To explain the depth of dishonesty, BIG FA$HION organizers put me in touch with Brian Coram, a Colorado Springs real estate agent and former counselor who ran for school board in the recent election. The guide's five issues were labeled, as mentioned above, as "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports," "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns," with each candidate's position described simply as "agree," "disagree" or "refused." But those simplistic terms had little relationship to the actual questions asked, as Coram explained.

The issue of "Critical Race Theory" was defined in the Church Voter Guide in relation to a declarative statement: "The United States is systemically and fundamentally racist, and students should be educated on white privilege and the unfair benefits that it generates." But that wasn't what Coram, who is Black, was asked in an early phone interview.

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"The first question they asked was, 'Is America systematically racist?' he recalled. "My response to that was, 'Yes, absolutely, 100%. And here's why. I work in real estate. There's a thing called redlining. We know what that is. We know how the process works. We also know that even if we're not doing it today America builds on that foundation and therefore, as a system, it started as a racist system. Does that mean that we are still there? No, it doesn't. Do I still think we have issues? Of course. That's not the important part. You asked the question, I answered the question." His answer was summarized in the guide as "Does endorse CRT," although that was never discussed.

Equally problematic was the issue of "Parental rights," which functioned as de facto code for objecting to mask mandates, but not of course for parents' rights to protect their children from COVID. But the specific wording contained other trapdoors.

"I remember one of the questions being, 'Should parents always be informed of any medical decisions that the school makes for the children?'" Coram recalled. "I answered that question with, 'OK, so hold on, I have a background in social work. So you're telling me that if a kid comes into school with a bunch of bruises and whatnot and all that stuff, you're going to call the parent, who could in fact be the abuser, and say, 'Hey, we're going to do this,' and they'll go, 'Oh no, don't do that, I'll come get him,' and then they end up murdering that kid. Because that's what happens. I worked in social work. I've seen that before."

The interviewer objected, saying that wasn't what they were asking. But "any medical decisions" was in the original question, and Coram's response was labeled "refused." Regarding sex education, "What they asked was, 'Should sex education be abstinence-only?'" Coram recalled. "They did not say age-appropriate." The voter guide language added another layer of deception, framing the issue as "Sex education should be age appropriate, emphasizing the abstinence-based model."

In sharp contrast to TLC, BIG FA$HION's voter guides were completely unedited and transparent. (See Coram's here.) "We invited all candidates to participate and we told them their responses would be unedited, unaltered, submitted with screenshots of what was said so they didn't have any worries about us editing things out or putting things in," said Lara Matisek. None of the seven self-described conservative candidates responded. "It was very telling that they did not want to participate," she said. "Hundreds of parents wanted these questions answered that were never answered with the church voter guide."

The voter guides weren't the only resource TLC provided. They also had a whole webpage of links to voter tools, including "Worldview Resources" from My Faith Votes, which includes a series of short videos purporting to explain what the Bible has to say about a series of questions, such as border control and immigration, abortion and gun control.

Given that guns weren't invented until at least a thousand years later, you might conclude that the Bible doesn't have much to say about them, and you'd be correct. The Bible is also silent on abortion, although practiced and skillful cherry-picking is at work. On the subject of immigration, you might expect to find the famous passages from Exodus 22:21: "You shall not oppress a stranger nor torment him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" or Leviticus 19:34: "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself" or, for that matter, Matthew 25:35: "I was a stranger and you invited me in."

Nope, there's none of that. Instead we get, "Romans chapter 13 verses one through seven says there that the laws that have been given to us as a nation have been given to us by God and that those who are called to enforce those laws are actually ministers of God's righteousness. So we are to obey the laws that exist."

That's pretty much it: Exactly the same logic used to defend slavery — which, to be fair, has considerably more biblical support than do bans on abortion or restrictions on immigration. In short, the worldview here has very little to do with what's in the Bible. It's a charade, at best, or as Clarkson said, it's "code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society in tension or at odds with secular institutions."

If secular liberals and progressives are to successfully fight back, they need to understand what they're up against. But they also need to understand their own strengths, which brings us back to BIG FA$HION and how they got their name.

"The one thing that has kept us going and helped us to sustain momentum is that we find humor in pretty much everything we do," Matisek said. "When all the 'Unmask our kids' stuff was going on, we had partaken in some commentary on social media: 'Yeah, you know, we don't want to mask the kids. We shouldn't even be pantsing them! Unpants Colorado, while we're at it! Who needs pants in school?' So BIG FA$HION kind of got its name from some commentary we were doing."

Their opponents frequently claimed that Big Pharma was behind COVID restrictions and vaccine mandates, Guthrie explained, "So the joke that got legs and ran off was that Big Fashion was trying to keep us all wearing pants."

This spontaneous playfulness in response to right-wing manufactured outrage reminded me of Dannagal Goldthwaite Young's book "Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States" (Salon interviews here and here). As she explains, the left can never realistically hope to match the right's capacity to generate outrage, even in response to blatant efforts to steal elections and overthrow democracy. What can help empower progressives the save themselves is a shared capacity to laugh at the absurd rather than be imprisoned by it — a capacity to mock those who would make a mockery of democracy. We will need as much of that ability to laugh as we can manage.

Could this one weird trick save American democracy?

The past decade has seen voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering grow dramatically worse, while the Supreme Court has undercut efforts to fight back through litigation — both by striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and by declaring that partisan gerrymandering is not a matter for the courts. But the courts aren't the only avenue for protecting America against democratic erosion. Congress has a key role as well — in fact, it has an urgent duty to act, according to a recent article about the U.S. Constitution's "Guarantee Clause" by Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Democrats in the Senate are reluctant to act, because that would mean altering or ditching the antiquated filibuster, which has been tinkered with repeatedly before. What they haven't taken seriously, at least so far, is the constitutional obligation enshrined in the Guarantee Clause, a topic also recently addressed by New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie: "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."

For more than a century, courts have refused to act on this clause, viewing it as a "nonjusticiable" political question. As Shapiro notes in the abstract of her paper, "many see the Clause as purely vestigial." She continues: "But nonjusticiable does not mean toothless, and this view fails to recognize the Clause's grant of power to Congress," which the framers included, she argues, "because they feared that some forms of government, such as monarchy, were incompatible with republicanism, which they understood as representative self-government."

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Those fears "appear prescient" in light of the democratic erosion we're seeing now, Shapiro argues: "Fortunately, the Guarantee Clause allows — indeed, requires — Congress to address these antidemocratic state-level practices."

Shapiro's case amounts to the claim that congressional action on this issue is a crucial constitutional duty, clarified and reinforced by our history, which has seen the meaning of "republican" government evolve, even as the core rationale remains the same. This dual reality — an evolving meaning with a stable rationale — illustrates the logic of living constitutionalism and the folly of "originalism," while the plain language of the Guarantee Clause refutes the right-wing trope that "states' rights" must be seen as the antidote to a tyrannical federal government. The danger of state-level tyranny was clearly recognized by the Constitution's authors.

The need for such action has never been more urgent, as reflected in a recent statement by more than 150 scholars of American democracy, calling on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, "if necessary by suspending the Senate filibuster rule," and warning that if it fails to act, "American democracy will be at critical risk." Shapiro casts things in an even sharper light by elucidating the constitutional duty — which was vigorously fulfilled by the Reconstruction-era Congress, even before passage of the 14th and 15th amendments. Salon recently asked Shapiro to explore her argument in depth. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The Guarantee Clause promises that the United States "shall guarantee to every state in the Union a Republican form of government." That part of the Constitution gets relatively little attention. Why does it deserve our attention now?

Well, it deserves our attention because it was created, in part, for a moment like the moment we're in, where we have movement away from compatible forms of government between the states. The "republican form of government" is a very broad term, it can mean a lot of different things at different moments in history.

But the framers were very worried that there would be certain forms of government that would just be incompatible with each other, and that the country would fall apart. A situation we are in now — where we have some states that do not appear to be committed to democracy, and are working to undermine democracy in some pretty significant ways — that's exactly the kind of situation that the Guarantee Clause speaks to.

You write that "making sense of the Guarantee Clause today requires recognizing that republicanism means something broader and more democratic than it did at the founding." So, first of all, what's the core meaning that's still applicable? And how has it broadened and changed?

At the founding, the idea of republicanism was actually quite malleable. The real vision of republicanism had to do with trying to prevent corruption, prevent anarchy, to promote virtue, in a way that political thinkers thought of as being similar to the Roman and Greek republics, which is where the term republicanism comes from. They had very different ideas about what that might look like. So, in Britain, they thought it could be compatible with monarchy, whereas in what became the United States, that was absolutely rejected as a possibility.

There were some core features of republicanism, and one of them was representative democracy, with some level of representation by whoever they consider to be the people. Of course, we think of "the people" today as much broader than they did at the time. But that came out of this desire to promote virtue and prevent anarchy, and try to prevent corruption among leaders — that there was always a danger of self-interest getting in the way. So you wanted to promote virtue among the leaders, among the people who were making decisions on behalf of the people. And one way to do that was to make those leaders answerable to the people.

So how has that broadened and changed?

We would not today consider what they saw at the founding as representative democracy. At the founding, only white men, and in many places only white men who were property owners, were allowed to vote, and that continued well into the 19th century in some states. Rhode Island had extremely restrictive franchise rules well up until the 1840s. So we wouldn't recognize that as a kind of representative democracy.

The other piece of what is important about the Guarantee Clause has to do with this idea of a structural guarantee — that it's about making sure that we can be a cohesive country. There are limits to what can happen in one state without it affecting the governance in another state and the cohesion between states.

You can see that with what happened with slavery. At the founding, there were people who were against slavery, but there was a general acceptance that it might be at least possible or even likely that we could have a country where slavery was legal in some states and illegal in other states. What happened over time is that it became clear that was untenable. In order to enforce slavery in the slave states, it was impossible for the free state to protect their own people. It was impossible for the free states to have their own laws.

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We saw that in cases like Prigg v. Pennsylvania, where slave-catchers could come into a free state and abduct people, including people who were born free in Pennsylvania, and say, "Well we own these people, and we're going to take them back to Maryland," and there was nothing Pennsylvania could do, even with a law that says you can't kidnap people, even under claim of ownership. So slavery became inconsistent with national cohesion, and at the same time with republicanism, because it undermines the whole notion of a functioning representative democracy.

You write that "the story often told is that the Framers were determined to protect the states from the federal government, or the parts from the whole, in order to protect against tyranny" but that in fact the protections "run in several directions." How should the Guarantee Clause be understood in this context?

It's in a part of the Constitution that generally talks about those relationships. It includes a variety of different promises that the federal government is making to the states, not just a guarantee of a republican form of government — for example, a guarantee of protection against invasion. There's this promise that if New York invades Pennsylvania, the federal government will aid Pennsylvania. It's about trying to find that balance in doing something quite new, in having this country made up of sovereign states that have given up a fair amount of their sovereignty, and in exchange are getting these promises.

In your paper you talk about the "spillover effects" that laws in one state can cause in others. Can you explain what those are and why they're such a concern?

Spillover effects is a concept not necessarily related to the question of a "republican form of government." That arises from the notion that sometimes things decided upon by the government of one state can have negative — or, for that matter, positive — effects in another state. So, the easiest one to think about is pollution. If I'm in a state with not much regulation of pollution and we're throwing a lot of stuff into the water and it's going downstream into the next state, the next state is experiencing, quite literally, a negative spillover effect.

But it's not limited to pollution, that's just the easiest concrete example. What I argue in the paper — and this is not my idea, it comes out of the work of many other scholars on democratic decline — is that there can be a negative feedback loop related to anti-democratic or pro-authoritarian impulses. So if one state is bound and determined to not allow a certain set of people to vote, or is going to gerrymander its legislature in such a way that it is highly unrepresentative, that has effects that go beyond that state itself.

Some of those effects are kind of literal: That gerrymandered legislature, in turn, is going to gerrymander the congressional delegation, which is going to affect everybody in the country, for example, through how they choose their presidential electoral votes. But the democracy scholars talk about the tit-for-tat situation that develops over time, where states begin to respond to each other: "Well, the other side is doing this. If they're gerrymandering so extremely, then we better do the same," for example. That can really devolve into an anti-democratic spiral, which I think we're seeing.

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You argue that the Guarantee Clause "may require a federal legislative response to state-level actions when they threaten antidemocratic spillovers" — not just "justify" but "require," you say. Why should we see it this way?

Well, it's a guarantee. It's a promise. It's not an enforceable requirement. You can't go to court and make Congress do it. But I think it is an appropriate way of thinking about the clause. "Guarantee" is a big word. It's not like you know, "the United States shall facilitate," or "shall promote." It says "guarantee," and I think thinking about the reasons behind such a promise is so important.

I don't think it's to be taken lightly. I don't think that I would support an argument that the Guarantee Clause allows Congress to come in and do anything it wants in restructuring state government. I don't think that's what it says at all. I think it's specifically about the kind of danger that we are currently facing.

Obviously there's room for debate, and there would be judgment calls about exactly when we're in such a situation, and what types of responses are justified. But I don't think that changes the reality that this promise is premised on the challenge of having a diverse country, even though the diversity at the time of the founding was very different. There was still worry about different states not respecting their place as coequal states, coequal members of this new country, that there could be expansionist tyrannical efforts to overtake other states' interests. I think that fairly describes a lot of what we're seeing today.

The Guarantee Clause was largely unused before the Civil War, as you discuss. What lessons can we draw from that time period?

We can draw a number of lessons. One is that if it's unused, of course, it's not very meaningful. We can see it was unused for reasons that were not necessarily very good. I talk in the paper about some of the reasons why, in the most crucial moment, around the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island — when the president was approached and Congress was approached and then later, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in — there really was resistance to doing anything. Many historians think that was in part because the slaveowners and the slave states understood the Guarantee Clause as a threat to them. Because if it was taken seriously, it was not going to be possible to reconcile a republican form of government with slavery. And abolitionists in the 19th century were making this argument, they were arguing that's what the Guarantee Clause had to mean.

So there was great reluctance on the part of the Supreme Court, which was dominated by justices from slave states — some of them slaveowners themselves — and from the president at the time, who was from the South, to do anything that might open the door to relying on the Guarantee Clause to undermine slavery.

The Civil War obviously brought about a sea change, but the role of the Guarantee Clause is usually obscured in that history. What should we know about that?

The Reconstruction Congress relied on the Guarantee Clause to do a number of things before they enacted or sent to the states the 14th and 15th amendments. For example, they refused to seat delegations from some states unless and until they thought the states complied with having the type of government that they considered to meet the Guarantee Clause requirements. That meant things like universal male suffrage — and that was before the 15th Amendment was ratified. So they saw the Guarantee Clause as a crucial piece of undoing slavery, just as the slaveowners had worried that it would be. So it's very consistent.

But ultimately when the 14th and 15th amendments were ratified, a lot of attention, understandably, shifted to those amendments. One of the arguments I make is that an unanticipated consequence of those amendments has been that a lot of the debate we have about voting and election law is bound up in those amendments, which are really understood to provide individual rights and protect people's individual rights, whereas the Guarantee Clause is not about that. As I've argued, it's a guarantee about the relationship between the states. Even though the 14th and 15th amendments on the one hand and the Guarantee Clause on the other may address very similar concerns, they do so in a very different kind of way.

That leads into my next question, about how things have developed since the post-Civil War era. One was that shift of focus, but you also talk about the development of our national identity as a democracy. What's important about this for us today?

I think it's important for a couple of reasons. One is that the more cohesive we are as a country, both in terms of political culture and national identity, but also in terms of how the federal government operates in general — it is a much more significant force than it was at the founding — all speak to the potential dangers of the negative spillover effects that the Guarantee Clause was designed to address. So it's not necessarily better or worse. It's different.

I talk about how people today, as a general matter, are more likely to identify as Americans than, say, Illinoisians. I talk about how with massive immigration, with massive internal migration — where people are really moving from state to state but maintain connections with people in other states — the distinct state cultures which were very important at the founding have fallen away. And of course we have technology and an ability to travel that completely eclipses anything that was the case at the time. In essence, we function much more as a single political entity than we did at the founding.

At the same time, the history of the country is a history of moving towards increased democracy. Even in the 19th century, when you start to have people in Rhode Island during the Dorr Rebellion, say, "No, it's not OK for only men who have $134 worth of property and their eldest sons to vote. Other people should be able to vote too." And it's not OK to have a state legislature so malapportioned that rural towns were able to dominate the increasingly populous cities in Rhode Island.

Now, that's long before the Supreme Court started weighing in, that was 120 years before the Supreme Court weighed in on "one person, one vote," it was before the 14th Amendment itself. But that's part of this ongoing trend, right through to the abolition of slavery, to the 14th amendment, the 15th amendment and the 19th amendment, all of these different amendments about expanding democracy. So there's an increased constitutional commitment to popular, representative democracy that really does allow for full participation among the citizenry. That's been a pretty consistent trend.

We didn't always live up to it. The end of Reconstruction was a big backslide. But I talk in the paper about all these examples of presidents claiming, "We're going to make the world safe for democracy" or "We're going to bring democracy to the Middle East" or "The Axis Powers of World War II are trying to undermine democracy." It's a rallying cry for the country and has been for well over a century, at least since the Civil War. So I think those two put together, when you have a national identity focused on democracy and when you have that being undermined in individual states, that is a dangerous situation.

That brings us to the current moment and the threats we face now. How should they be understood in terms of the Guarantee Clause?

Well, they should be understood, in terms of the Guarantee Clause, exactly as a true threat to the ability of the country to function as a single country and as a democratic country. Federalism is often used when people talk about how states get to decide who votes and how they vote and how elections are run, and that the Constitution gives that power to the states. But the Guarantee Clause is like the safety valve on the other side, to say that we could go too far in allowing each state to decide what to do.

If a bunch of states were to say, "You know what, we're not going to have popular elections of presidents anymore." If they were to say that through gerrymandered legislatures that are themselves not democratically elected, enough states with undemocratic gerrymandered legislatures decided to take the vote for president away from the people — and they had enough votes among themselves to elect a president — it's hard to imagine that that presidency would be understood as fully legitimate by all the people who weren't for that president, whether in those states or in the other states. So that's an example where antidemocratic actions in one state, if there are enough of them, can completely undermine our national government and our ability to accept our national government.

You write that in interpreting and enforcing the Guarantee Clause, "Congress is due more here than the limited deference the Court gives to congressional efforts to enforce individual rights" under the 14th and 15th amendments — which is exactly what happened with the Shelby v. Holder decision. Do you think that would protect against the court invalidating congressional action based on the Guarantee Clause?

It's a fool's errand to say for sure what the Supreme Court is going to do. So I don't think there's a guarantee, no pun intended. I think they are very different, and I think the arguments are powerful — let me put it that way. I think that if the Supreme Court decides it's not going to define the scope of the Guarantee Clause, which it has decided, and if the Guarantee Clause is directed to the government as a whole, which it is, and if Congress makes meaningful findings — and I don't think Congress can act willy-nilly; an appropriate use of the Guarantee Clause requires a thoughtful explanation for why they're doing what they're doing — but if Congress does that, I think a significant deference is owed to their judgment.

It's exactly the kind of political judgment that led the court to decide it couldn't weigh into the Guarantee Clause in the first place. And since it hasn't provided any definition of the scope of what that clause means — unlike the rights protected by the 14th and 15th amendments — it would essentially be like a guessing game: "No, that one didn't work. Try again." That's not the way coequal branches are supposed to operate.

So, can I tell you the Supreme Court would agree with me and would do what I suggest here? Of course I can't make that promise. But I think the arguments are powerful. I think there are very meaningful differences between the different clauses and the amendments. Some of them have to do with the way they are written, and some have to do with how the Supreme Court has interpreted them, or declined to do so.

When it came to extreme partisan gerrymandering, until Anthony Kennedy left the court, it looked like they might say, "Yes we can and should do something about it," and then they pulled back. By the logic that you're proposing, this would strengthen Congress's hand in acting, correct?

This is a key: Under the elections clause, Congress can outlaw extreme partisan gerrymandering for congressional elections. I think that's widely accepted. But I think under the Guarantee Clause they can actually do it for state legislatures, and there is no other part of the Constitution that provides for that power. In fact, at the time of the founding there was a genuine fear that some states would try to establish monarchies in their own state. And if you think about it, if enough states were to say tomorrow, "We're not going to call it a monarchy, but our governor is going to serve for life and the governor gets to pick their successor, and then that person serves for life, etc.," would we stand for that? What if the state said, "We're also going to allow for that governor to handpick the members of the legislative body'? Would that be OK?

I don't think that would be OK. Congress could refuse to seat a delegation from a state that looks like that, but that could actually undermine the only small-d democratic function that the state might have left. So I think it would be well within Congress' power to say, "No, states must have a popularly elected governor and a popularly elected legislature," without a lot of detail. If a state decided to have a parliamentary form of government, that would not violate the Guarantee Clause because we see that as an appropriate form of representative democracy today. But monarchy or aristocracy? I don't think that is consistent with our understanding of republicanism.

So we're at a point of crisis now. More than 150 scholars of democratic backsliding just issued a statement in support of the Freedom to Vote Act and setting aside the filibuster, saying that if Congress fails to pass the act, "American democracy will be at critical risk." How should we understand the relationship between your argument and this call for action?

I think they come from the same place. We are in a really dangerous situation where a lot of significant efforts are being made in many states to change the way we choose our leaders, to exclude significant numbers of people from being able to have a say. We look increasingly like a country close to what we looked like before the Voting Rights Act, in terms of large parts of the country not having a government that is in any way responsive to and or elected by the people. It's elected by a subset of the people, and responsive to a subset of the people. In turn, because the legislatures in most states draw the maps for the legislature, and in most states draw the maps for Congress, and in all states get to decide how presidential electors are chosen, there's a whole series of knock-on effects that become very, very hard to undo over time.

In your survey of threats that we face today you don't just mention extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression. You also talk about anti-democratic lame-duck lawmaking, which we've seen in Wisconsin and North Carolina. How might Congress respond?

This really is most relevant in states that are pretty purple, that could go either way. You have this heavily gerrymandered supermajority Republican legislature and in statewide elections Democratic statewide officials are elected — whether the governor and the attorney general, as in North Carolina, or Supreme Court justices in some states — and then in the interim period, before the new governor comes in, the state legislatures have enacted laws that change the structure of government in a meaningful way, taking power away from the incoming Democratic officeholders and reallocating it to the legislature.

In the case of Wisconsin, one particularly outrageous thing was that one of these laws had the intent and effect of making it impossible for the new Democratic governor [Tony Evers] to fulfill one of his primary campaign promises, which was to get out of the anti-Obamacare lawsuit. He supported Obamacare, and withdrawing from the lawsuit was a big issue in the campaign, not a small thing. And then the legislature enacted a law, which the outgoing governor signed, that prevented that from happening. To me, that's particularly outrageous, because we had a small-d democratic election, people said, "This is what we want," and then an undemocratic gerrymandered legislature with an outgoing governor undermines that.

I think one way of addressing that is that if a legislature is passing laws in that lame-duck period that reallocate authority within state government in some way, those laws have to go through some form of pre-clearance to establish that it's not an attempt to undermine the democratic decisions of the people of the state. I would argue that it should be nationwide. I think it would be a pretty deferential standard, because there's lots of things that state legislatures can and should do in that context. But as a nationwide system it would at minimum discourage that kind of democratic undermining.

In two respects your paper goes against conservative constitutional mythology. First, you reveal the obvious shortsightedness of regionalism and, second, by focusing attention on the text you push back against the states' rights ideology, making it clear that the Constitution grants federal power to protect against tyranny coming from the states just as much as it protects the states against federal tyranny. Do you have any broader thoughts about the importance of freeing ourselves from these kinds of partial and misleading myths?

That's a big question. I am not an originalist, that's pretty obvious. But on the states' rights side, that is, I think, a really crucial contribution, in the way I think about the Guarantee Clause. There's this whole long saga about how a big central government is tyrannical, by definition, that the states are closer to the people and can prevent us from tyranny. That's the story that we get told. I teach a version of that story when I talk about what the founders were thinking, but they weren't oblivious to the danger that tyranny could come from within a state. They thought there were some forms of government that are incompatible with democracy. You can't have unlimited states' rights.

Finally, what's the most important question that I haven't asked? And what's the answer?

The most important question is, "What do we do to try to protect democracy in our country?" And I think the answer is enormously complicated. I think Congress should absolutely pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and should pass some of the ideas I propose in the paper. Of course I think that.

But I also think ordinary people should take responsibility for talking across ideological divides, promoting meaningful civic education that teaches young people how to do that. It's something I do as faculty director of the Constitutional Democracy Project at Chicago-Kent. One thing democracy scholars talk about is that an antidemocratic spiral arises out of this belief that if the other side wins it's the worst thing that could happen. I think we are in a moment in our country where both sides think that — it's an existential threat if the other side wins. I don't know the answer to that, but I don't think the answer comes from Congress. It has to come from people.

How extremist Christian theology is driving the right-wing assault on democracy

Progressive policies and positions are supposed to be rooted in reality and hard evidence. But that's not always the case when it comes to the culture wars that have such an enormous impact on our politics — especially not since the unexpected evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016, culminating in the "pro-life" death cult of anti-vaccine, COVID-denying religious leaders. If this development perplexed many on the left, it was less surprising to a small group of researchers who have been studying the hardcore anti-democratic theology known as dominionism that lies behind the contemporary Christian right, and its far-reaching influence over the last several decades.

One leading figure within that small group, Rachel Tabachnick, was featured in a recent webinar hosted by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (archived on YouTube here), as part of its Religion and Repro Learning Series program, overseen by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson. Tabachnick's writing on dominionism can be found at Talk2Action and Political Research Associates, and she's been interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Her presentation sheds important light on at least three things: First of all, the vigilante element of the Texas anti-abortion law SB 8. Second, the larger pattern of disrupting or undermining governance, including the "constitutional sheriffs" movement, the installation of overtly partisan election officials and the red-state revolt against national COVID public health policies. While Donald Trump has exploited that pattern ruthlessly, he did not create it. And third, the seemingly baffling fact that an anti-democratic minority feels entitled to accuse its opponents — including democratically elected officials — of "tyranny."

Some dominionist ideas — such as the biblical penalty of death by stoning — are so extreme they can easily be dismissed as fringe, others have been foundational to the modern religious right, and still more have become increasingly influential in recent years. Those latter two categories are what we need to understand most, say both Tabachnick and Jackson.

"One of the things that struck me, as a relative newcomer," said Jackson, a former Congregationalist minister, "was that there was not sufficient understanding about the theological frames used by many individuals who are opposed to abortion." She continued, "I'm a strategist in a lot of ways, and one important strategy, I believe, must be to understand what the teachings and the theological frames are" on the other side. Which links directly to the question of what progressive activists need to do differently in this changed environment.

This failure to understand the nature of dominionism has hampered activists, not just in the realm of reproductive justice, but across an entire spectrum of political issues, both cultural and economic. Jackson discussed her own background, raised within a conservative Christian worldview.

"I was taught a very individualistic approach," she said, "taught that we shouldn't pay taxes, because doing so enabled people who were not working, and enables people whose lifestyle we don't agree with." There's nothing new about such views, but dominionism provides believers with an even stronger foundation for them.

Jackson describes her current understanding of religious faith as highly intersectional: "We believe that to understand the attacks on abortion also invites us — or even requires us — to look at attacks on voting, to look at attacks on immigrants, attacks on prison reform, attacks on equal pay and on and on," she said. "It's all of the same cloth: They are all attacks on humans flourishing. That's my language. The God of my understanding wants all of us to flourish in who we are."

The language of dominionism is strikingly different, to put it mildly. In her webinar, Tabachnick played a clip of one of the movement's leading figures, C. Peter Wagner, providing a definition:

Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing. And it relates to society — in other words what is talked about, what the values are in heaven [that] need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings. It says in Revelation chapter 1:6 that "he has made us kings and priests," and check the rest of that verse, it says "for dominion." So we are kings for dominion.

Later she provided a definition from Frederick Clarkson, author of the 1997 book, "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy":

Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological view, means, or timetable, Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.

Wagner, who died in 2016, is known as the founding father of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), one of the two main branches of dominionism, which grew out of the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions within evangelical Christianity. Dominionists in the other branch, known as "Christian reconstructionism," come out of conservative Calvinism, with a focus on bringing government and society under biblical law. They tend to be more circumspect, often obfuscating their true intentions and avoiding the word "theocracy" in favor of "theonomy," for example. But not Wagner, as can be seen in the title of his 2011 book, "Dominion!: Your Role in Bringing Heaven to Earth." The NAR talks constantly about taking dominion over the "seven mountains" of society: education, religion, family, business, government, arts and the media.

But it's the other branch, the Christian reconstructionists, who have excelled at strategic organizing and providing blueprints across different right-wing constituencies for almost 50 years. They are the ones Tabachnick focused most of her presentation on, specifically two key figures: Rousas John Rushdoony, the movement's master theologian, and his son-in-law Gary North, a prolific strategist, propagandist and networker who was once a staffer for Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian hero.

Christian reconstructionism, Tabachnick explained, is "about bringing government in all areas of life under biblical law, a continuation of the Mosaic law in the Old Testament, with some exceptions." This dispensation would include, "according to Gary North, public execution of women who have abortions and those who advise them to have an abortion."

In a recent private presentation, Frederick Clarkson asked a rhetorical question: "People have long said that there should be Christian government, but if you had one, what would it look like? What would it do? Rushdoony was the first to create a systematic theology of what Christian governance should be like, based on the Ten Commandments, and all of the judicial applications he could find in the Old Testament — including about 35 capital offenses."

But the "Handmaid's Tale"-style extremism of dominionists' ultimate vision shouldn't really be our focus, Tabachnick told Salon. "Nobody cares about the theocratic, draconian future envisioned by reconstructionists because they don't believe it will happen," she said.

What's happening right now, however, is that this ideology has had tremendous impact on more immediate politics. "Christian reconstructionism is the merger of a distinct brand of Calvinism with Austrian School economics," Tabachnick said. "In other words, it's an interpretation of the Bible grounded in property rights." The results have been far-reaching:

For more than 40 years, its prolific writers have provided the foundations and strategic blueprints for the attacks on liberation theology and the social gospel, as well as many other streams of Christianity which do not share the Reconstructionists' belief in unfettered capitalism as ordained by God and its fierce anti-statism. The larger religious right's attack on public education, the social safety net and most government functions are largely grounded in the writings, strategies and tactics formulated by reconstructionist writers.

Reconstructionism is not the only (and certainly not the first) source of interposition and nullification in this country. However, much of what is currently being taught today about using interposition to undermine the legitimacy of government is sourced in reconstructionism.

This idea of "interposition" comes through what's known as the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," which we'll return to below. But its significance — especially in the post-2020 Republican Party — has only recently become apparent. Reconstructionism's initial appeal was more immediately, as Tabachnick explained in the seminar:

What Rushdoony provided is a package that included attacking what these fundamentalists hated and feared most in society, often expressed in terms of "This is communist. This is socialist." But Rushdoony provided a way to sacralize these ideas, and at the same time not just tear down the old order, but provide a blueprint for the new order.

Everyone didn't have to agree on the blueprint, she said: "Rushdoony's ideas went out in bits and pieces. The Christian right leaders took what they wanted and discarded what they didn't."

"Christian reconstructionism, as articulated by Rushdoony, provided a standard by which everyone else had to measure themselves," Clarkson told Salon. "Not everyone on the Christian right agreed with Rushdoony and his fellow Reconstructionist thinkers on, for example, the contemporary application of capital crimes listed in the Old Testament. And followers were often at pains to distinguish themselves."

Clarkson cites the case of conservative Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer, who disagreed with Rushdoony on the applicability of biblical law, but became a driving force behind the anti-abortion activist movement Operation Rescue. That "militant Schaefferism," Clarkson said, "led activists to think: What's next, beyond political protest and stopping abortion? This is where the conversation has been in the Christian right for decades."

The doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," mentioned above, first emerged into public discourse out of Operation Rescue. But it did so as part of a larger, more complicated story.

There's a long history of right-wing opposition to federal authority, particularly grounded in the 19th-century defense of slavery and continuing in the defense of Jim Crow segregation. In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke specifically of the governor of Alabama "having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification."

As detailed by Randall Balmer in "Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right," the religious right wasn't initially fueled by opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, but by opposition to a lesser-known decision in 1971, Green v. Connally, which threatened the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory institutions, most famously the evangelical stronghold Bob Jones University.

Anti-abortion activists have long sought not just to bury that past but to stand it on its head, somehow equating Roe v. Wade with the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857 and claiming the moral heritage of abolitionism.

"Throughout these movements there is also an attempt to turn the tables on the claims of racism," Tabachnick said in her webinar. "This is one of the roles that anti-abortion activism as abolition plays. Also, there's a promotion of narratives that provide a different history and legal justifications for interposition, nullification and even secession. One of the things that Christian reconstructionism has added to this dialogue is the concept of the lower magistrate."

As Tabachnick explains it, the "lesser magistrate" is a heroic figure who "resists the tyranny of a higher authority" — defining "tyranny" in biblical terms, potentially including any number of popular or common-sense laws or policies. This notion first gained salience in the anti-abortion context in the 1980s and '90s, as Tabachnick went on to explain.

"Many violent anti-abortionists have justified their actions in reconstructionist teachings," she said. "One of these was Paul Hill, who studied under one of the major reconstructionist leaders and corresponded with others." Hill went on to murder Dr. John Britton, a physician who performed abortions, as well as Britton's personal bodyguard, in 1994. Hill was executed in 2003, but the reconstructionist movement sought to cast him out well before that.

"Gary North responded, after the murders had taken place, in a book called 'Lone Gunners for Jesus,'" Tabachnick said. His message to Hill was, "You're going to burn in hell, you've been excommunicated. This was because Paul Hill stepped outside the bounds of the guidelines set by the movement."

To explain this, she quoted a passage from another book by North that offered qualified support for Operation Rescue: "We need a statement that under no circumstances will Operation Rescue or any of its official representatives call for armed resistance to civil authority without public support from a lesser magistrate."

"On the basis of their belief of what the law or the word of God is, they are allowed — on the advice, on the interposition, of a lesser magistrate — to commit acts of violence," Tabachnick continued. North was seeking to control or curb anti-abortion terrorism, but without rejecting it in principle. Murdering abortion providers — or even murdering women seeking abortions — could be morally justified, with the blessing of a lesser magistrate.

This is relevant to SB 8 in Texas in at least two ways. That bill bans abortions after six weeks and is enforced not by state officials, but by deputizing private individuals to sue anyone who performs the procedure or "aids and abets" it. First of all, giving private individuals these vigilante-style rights seems a lot like making them into "lesser magistrates," however narrowly constrained.

Second, the Supreme Court's refusal to stay the law — which clearly violates the Constitution and existing precedent, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in her dissent — can be seen as an example of the doctrine in action. In more normal circumstances, the court would have stayed the law pending consideration on the merits, even if a majority of justices intended to overturn precedent. That's how common law has worked for centuries.

But biblical law isn't common law, especially as reconstructionists understand it. Under the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," Roe is not precedent but an instance of tyranny — and the justices have a duty to God to resist it. Of course, not even Amy Coney Barrett or Clarence Thomas has said anything like that, but it's entirely consistent with their behavior — as well as with their silence, since openly making such an argument would clarify just how radicalized they have become. But adherents of the doctrine of the lesser magistrate must surely appreciate the drift in direction.

Nor is the doctrine limited to abortion cases, as already noted. Matthew Trewhella is a pastor who was a prominent leader of violence-prone wing of the anti-abortion movement in 1990s, and author of the 2013 book, "The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates," which greatly heightened its visibility.

"Trewhella is now all over radio and the internet," Tabachnick said in her webinar, "claiming to meet with state legislators and attorney generals at the moment, with the cause of fighting the 'tyranny of mask mandates' and vaccination for COVID. So you can see how this is a concept that is not just limited to abortion. It is a concept that can be used in resistance of government authority all over the country in all different kinds of ways — FEMA, EPA, Bureau of Land Management and so forth."

Trewhella isn't breaking new ground here. Clarkson's 1997 book "Eternal Hostility" describes him making similar arguments in a speech to an anti-tax group in Wisconsin. He was just one figure among many spreading the seeds of reconstructionist resistance to federal authority among militia members, "freemen" and anti-abortion activists at the time.

"This movement believes that rights come from God and not from any government," Tabachnick told Salon. "Therefore, any 'rights' that conflict with their interpretation of God's law are not actually rights. They are 'humanist' or a product of man's laws and not God's laws. This theme of 'human rights' versus inalienable rights from God has been at the center of the Christian Reconstructionist movement since its beginnings."

She pointed to "What's Wrong With Human Rights," an excerpt from a book of the same name by the Rev. T. Robert Ingram published in "The Theology of Christian Resistance," a collection edited by North. Ingram sweeps aside the Bill of Rights as "a statement of sovereign powers of states withheld from the federal authority of the Union," and turns instead to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason in 1776.

The first section of the Virginia Declaration, beginning "That all Men are by Nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent Rights," is dismissed by Ingram for omitting any mention of God, as an "error of unbelief which falsifies all the rest that is said about human life." The second, beginning "That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the People; that Magistrates are their Trustees and Servants, and at all Times amenable to them," he dismisses as well: "The meaning could not be more clear, nor more opposite Biblical thought. The ruling proposition of Scripture and Christian doctrine is that 'power belongeth unto God.'" In short, there are no human rights.

The connection to the doctrine of the lesser magistrate is clear: Power comes from God, not the people. Whatever the people want is irrelevant. Whatever laws they may pass are irrelevant, too, if they go against God. "Tyranny" is whatever the Christian reconstructionist decides he doesn't like.

Elsewhere, Ingram denigrates freedom of speech and the press:

Freedom of speech and freedom of press are, in fact, applied seriously only to giving government protection to instigators of riot and rebellion, as well as those who would undermine human order by more subtle attacks on morals and customs.

As for the right to dissent, he calls it "not a lawful claim to own or to do something, which is the true right," but "a turning upside down of right and wrong, calling good evil and evil good." Similarly, there is no scriptural right to "resist authority," only that granted by the false doctrine of "human rights."

Ingram's interpretation of the Civil War is that "Yankee radicals inflamed the Northern peoples to mount the Civil War in the name of a 'human right' to be free ... if they did not destroy the whole Southern Order, they did at least dismantle its vast and efficient plantation economy." The civil rights movement, unsurprisingly, is understood as a defiance of "Tradition, law, and custom, which preserved public peace and order in the bi-racial state of the union, both North and South," and became "the target of the right to resist in the 60's, the supposed human rights justifying the violent means."

Tabachnick didn't dig into this text in her webinar, but it serves to illustrate her central principle: "This attack on the very concept of 'human rights' can be found throughout today's religious right."

Jackson told Salon that the most important part of Tabachnick's presentation came "when she talked about humanism and the humanistic frame, from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those who are within the dominionist camp see that as contrary to God. I read those same documents and I say, this is pointing us toward the direction that God wants for us. They look at it and see that as counter to God, because humanism from their perspective is something very contrary to God."

If we take such arguments seriously, then we understand why for dominionists there is nothing wrong with breaking any law at all, so long as "God wills it" and you have the blessing of a so-called lesser magistrate. This is the reconstructionist argument supporting a whole range of chaotic right-wing activity today, including baseless claims that the 2020 election was a fraud. After all, the fundamental reconstructionist argument is that all such democratic government is illegitimate.

"The goal of reconstructionism is to tear down the existing order and reconstruct a new society based on biblical law," Tabachnick said. "Even if we assume that this vision of a theocratic America will never come to fruition, it's important to recognize the movement's impact on the ideas, strategies and tactics of the larger religious right and its role in sacralizing the actions of other anti-statist fellow travelers.

"As I wrote almost a decade ago, the theocratic libertarianism of Christian reconstructionism has been surprisingly seductive to Tea Partiers and young libertarians — many of whom may not realize what is supposed to happen after the government is stripped of its regulatory powers."