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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  COVID-19 Diaries, Sunday Edition
      •  Sunday Mailbag

COVID-19 Diaries, Sunday Edition

I will do the same sort of chart as last week, showing the top 10 states by number of cases. This analysis is for the month of May:

State New Cases Deaths
New York Down 75% Down 60%
New Jersey Down 40% Down 50%
Illinois Flat Flat
California Up 30% Up 20%
Massachusetts Down 60% Down 30%
Pennsylvania Down 50% Down 50%
Texas Flat Flat
Michigan Down 50% Down 50%
Maryland Up 10% Down 20%
Georgia Flat Flat

The following chart shows a few hand-picked states with spikes reported:

State New Cases Deaths
North Dakota Up 100% (100/day) Flat
Texas (repeated from above) Flat Flat
Alabama Up 100% (600/day) Down 50%

There are some places where reopening is moving R0 above 1 and potentially creating an exponential growth. Alabama is perhaps the most troubling, and California bears watching, as San Francisco or Los Angeles could easily turn into the next New York City. Note that the top 10 states (except for California and Maryland) are all down or flat (even Texas, which was reported as spiking). This does not mean that we are necessarily in good shape. We will have to wait a few more weeks to see if re-opening significantly changes R0 regionally.

Part of the obfuscation surrounding COVID-19 is impugning the quality of the tests. The implication is: "If the tests are all wrong, then we don't really know anything." On CNN, this is manifested by sad faces shaking their heads; in some conservative outlets, it fuels the narrative that this is all a hoax.

We are doing battlefield medicine. Things are being developed, tested, and pushed out with unprecedented speed. Given that this is a novel virus, I am actually rather impressed with what has been accomplished.

The test results are adequate for seeing how far the virus has progressed and how well it is being managed. The tests are perhaps not all we would want for the clinical management of an individual patient, but they can be effectively used, especially if they are repeated.

Tests deliver "false" results for various reasons:

  • It is a true "false" positive or negative. The test itself returned the wrong result based on the sample used. This would include tests that are incorrectly analyzed or interpreted.

  • The test was incorrectly administered. The sample was not correctly gathered or was contaminated.

  • The test is correct; but the sample did not contain the virus, even though the patient was infected. For example, this could occur if the virus were active in different part of the body than the one that was tested (i.e. the virus is in the lung, but the nose was tested).

  • The test was correct; but it does not provide the expected result for an infected person because of the nature of the virus. For example, this could occur if the virus were present but not being shed during the test (i.e. the patient is very early in the infection and asymptomatic).

The point is that "tests aren't useless" but instead that "testing is hard."

Let's look at the two types of tests. The first is antibody tests; there are three antibodies and three tests, all of them blood tests. These measure if you have had the virus in the past:

  • False positives: Possible; these are possible since if you had a similar virus, the antibodies test might give a positive due to your antibodies are "close" to those of COVID-19.

  • False negatives: Unlikely; the test is very accurate in detecting antibodies. A false negative would indicate that the infection has not progressed far enough for the patient to produce antibodies.

  • Complications: Each of the different antibodies are produced in different stages of the infection. The first set of antibodies might be present in as little as a week after exposure whereas the others might take up to a month to become detectable.

  • Unknown: How much immunity/resistance (if any) does each antibody represent?

The second type of test is the active virus (RNA) test: This is a swab (usually of the nose, sinus, throat or cheek) test. It detects the presence of the active virus:

  • False positives: Unlikely; this is a very specific and accurate test. If the swab detects the virus, it actually detected the virus.

  • False negatives: Very likely; you can be infectious and the test just missed it—not because the test was faulty, but because the sample did not contain any virus. Maybe the virus was not where the sample was taken, or the virus is not at a detectable level. If you go back to work right away, you might start producing the virus again.

  • Complications: Clinically, the test should be given every day until the patient stops producing detectable virus for at least 2 days. Then the patient should still be quarantined for two additional weeks.

  • Unknown: Can you test positive and not be infectious? How long should you rest and isolate after testing negative if you have been ill? (PD)

Sunday Mailbag

The goal of the mailbag—and not every reader agrees with this goal—is to get a range of opinions and perspectives that is otherwise not available on the days that it's just the two of us writing. Conceptually, we think of it as being somewhat akin to the French Salons of the enlightenment. It's true that there are other places on the Internet that have a similar sort of content, whether Reddit, or Quora, or, if you don't mind dealing with a significant number of deviants, 4chan. However, those places are not curated as carefully as the mailbag is, and we would also propose that our commenters are well-above-average when it comes to how erudite they are. Anyhow, today's mailbag is a particularly effective realization of what we're going for here.

COVID-19, Life and Times

D.E. in Lititz, PA, writes: Every day when I get ready to go to work, I put on a face mask. Yes, they are uncomfortable. Yes, they itch and the elastic bands make my ears ache. And yes, especially as the summer's humidity sets in, they often make breathing very difficult, plus they keep fogging up my glasses. But do you know the main reason I wear a face mask every day? It's not because my company has made it mandatory or that the Governor has requested it. It's not even because I worry about my own health. No, the main reason why I wear one is because if I did find out I was an asymptomatic carrier and that I had given the virus to someone else, and that resulted in their death or long-lasting ill health, I could not live with myself. I do this every day, but clearly Donald Trump thinks he is better than me, as he can't be bothered. Trump is so obsessed with being macho, and yet a little piece of cloth tied across his lower face makes him wet himself in fear. His loyal followers crow about how not wearing a mask "owns the libtards." What the hell is wrong with these people?

Not that long ago in this country, Americans had the well-earned reputation that if their neighbors were in trouble, they would collectively rush in to help. They would give generously, offered of themselves, and if need be they would miss church services to save a family in peril. This is the very core of American Greatness. Nowadays, a certain segment of our society can't get their heads out of their own butts to mildly inconvenience themselves by wearing a face mask (and potentially saving a person's life) because acting like a schoolyard bully kicking another's kid's sandcastle in a sandbox is much more meaningful.

Today, I read that Gov. Doug Burgam (R-ND) emotionally said "This is a, I would say, senseless dividing line, and I would ask people to try to dial up your empathy and your understanding." I would go one step more and say that it is a pointless manufactured dividing line created by that same bunch of schoolyard bullies just so they can say they kicked down your sandcastle. That's not American Greatness, that's American rot and disease. All bullies learn their behaviors from other bullies, and America's number one bully and spoiled brat is Donald Trump. According to Robert Graves, the Emperor Claudius said on contemplating the coming reign of Emperor Nero (and surely there is not a more apt historical figure for Trump), "Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out!"

G.R. in Amherst, NY, writes: I'm with J.L. in Chicago. While good, hard-working people are forced to join breadlines and children lose months of school time, I simply bask in retirement. The effect of this plague on me amounts to having to wear a mask when I occasionally venture out, and having to do my grocery shopping at 6:30 a.m. with the other old farts. This country has been wonderful to me—yes, I served over three years in World War II, but it has more than repaid me with a superb education that gave me the tools to succeed fiscally. Now I would like to join others like me to repay that gift and to support some of those who have been far less fortunate. A wealth tax would not only help those who are really suffering today but could also address our deep budgetary shortfall. But even without it—beaten back by the usual talk of welfare queens—I would be prepared to contribute to a local, state or national fund created to address our very real problems.

L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, writes: I applaud and cheer J.L. in Chicago, IL for their comments. My spouse and I have long supported increasing taxes in the manner that J.L. articulates. (We, too, are in J.L.'s "group.")

Additionally, I recently read this review of Thomas Piketty's newest book, Capital and Ideology, which presents a whole new economic structure that my spouse and I both believe Americans need to embrace.

Professor Piketty's look at economic structures over the course of human history, and the concept of owning property in Western societies, look to be a fascinating read. And his proposals, based on looking at historical institutions, could be achievable. Perhaps this pandemic, and the resultant financial stresses, will be the impetus in the U.S. (and even Europe) to embrace this type of reform. (Note: one of Piketty's former PhD students, who is now a professor at UC Berkeley, was key in helping Elizabeth Warren formulate her "wealth tax" proposal a year and a half ago.)

M.E. in Greenbelt, MD, writes: In last Sunday's mailbag, J.L. proposed raising taxes for people making $150,000 by "an extra $25,000." Neither my wife nor I make anything close to $150,000 individually, but our combined income is more than that. While that seems like a lot of money, we live in the suburbs of Washington, DC, which is usually listed among the most expensive cities in the nation. Generally speaking, we live a modest lifestyle: small home, two old cars, we rarely take vacations, we keep entertainment expenses low (no cable TV, only a few movie outings per year, etc.). Also, my wife and I are getting to an age where medical expenses can be a significant expense. Meanwhile we are raising a teenager and trying to cope with the accompanying expenses. About the only "extravagance" I have is maximizing my 401K contributions; however, with no pension from an employer, I see this as a necessity, especially since I don't feel I can rely on Social Security when I retire. On top of federal income taxes, we pay state and local income tax, sales tax, and property tax, which combine to take a substantial chunk of our income, to the point that even with an income significantly above the national average, we frequently live paycheck to paycheck. A tax increase of the level proposed by J.L. would be a serious problem for us. While I understand their point and am willing to pay more to help those more adversely affected by the pandemic than myself, a tax increase of this level might have me voting for a Republican President in 2024, which would be a first for me in 11 Presidential elections!

An American Tragedy

D.G. in St. Paul, MN, writes: Two nights ago, our family watched the destruction from an upper room in our newly-purchased home in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood, the acrid smoke of the burning dreams of hundreds of our neighbors wafting through the window on a hot summer's night. St. Paul police and fire dispatch rattled off building after building burning or looted, places we have come to know as landmarks in our community. The constant drone of sirens in the distance kept us ever aware of that terrible act that brought into sharp focus the decades of oppression and inequity in our state. Our very neighborhood is a microcosm of it, from the stately homes of wealthy residents along Summit Avenue to the bruised-but-not-broken community around Old Rondo, physically destroyed by Interstate 94 but spiritually as strong as ever. All I could think about was the image of a black man being murdered by those who are supposed to protect us. We say his name: George Floyd.

The next day my heart was lifted as I drove through Minneapolis to remove the last few things from our old house there. I saw hundreds of people manning brooms, shovels, trash bags and whatever they could bring to help each other start to repair their community. The spirit of solidarity was palpable. The scene was grim but the people were resolute, even, one might say, relieved and joyful at the opportunity to connect with neighbors in this time of pandemic-enforced separation.

Last night the sirens were still there, though not as prevalent and not as constant. St. Paul was more quiet, though not at peace. On the television we saw images of Minneapolis burning, not more than a couple of miles from the home we had moved from, just three blocks north of Lake Street. We lamented the loss of cherished restaurants and shops that had become regular destinations for us. The post office we frequented for sending and receiving packages was gone. On West Broadway, a few blocks from where my spouse works, more neighborhood businesses disappeared overnight.

As evening falls tonight, we learn that, as we suspected, the violence is the work of those who do not live among us. We wait with a tense unease the predicted deadly clash with white supremacists and armed militias, driven by hate and a twisted desire to foment a war. Yet I remain hopeful. I am hopeful that like all bullies, they will prove to be cowards as they confront a community stronger than they realize. We have been told how to prepare for the worst: remove anything mobile from our property, stay in, keep lights on, windows open, watch, listen and report.

We will be vigilant. And when this crisis is over we will begin the hard, hard work of systemic change. We will be vulnerable with each other, we will be honest with each other, we will act powerfully with each other as we bend the arc of the moral universe ever more toward justice.

M.S. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: In addition to the list of names you published Friday (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner) to which we are now adding George Floyd, I would add Ahmaud Arbery (though not, strictly, a police shooting), Philando Castile (also in Minnesota), and the one that seemed to be the beginning of it all in terms of reminding us how far we were from racial equality: Rodney King.

A sad litany indeed.

L.V.A. in Idaho Falls, ID, writes: I find it 'instructive' that the George Floyd demonsrations are dismissed as motivated by 'agitators'. Did we learn nothing from the civil rights movement or the Vietnam protests?

J.M. in Portland, OR, writes: I'm terrified that the riots going on across America right now will work to Donald Trump's advantage. The riots of the late 60's changed my middle-class white parents from New Deal Democrats to racist Nixon Republicans. I would hate to see similar damage done to the current Democratic coalition. It may help that a Republican is in office now versus LBJ, but I'm still worried that whites may once again reject the Democratic Party.

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, writes: There were over 500,000 likes on Taylor Swift's tweet in the first hour. Joe Biden's team should hire her for voter outreach:

2020 Election, General Observations

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, writes: I had been so puzzled by Trump's sudden suspicion of absentee voting, especially since he votes absentee (as do many Republicans, and in greater numbers than Democrats). But then I read your item about the latest voter suppression efforts by those same beacons of democracy who brought us Brett Kavanaugh and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) intern for lifetime judicial appointments. It's now crystal clear who is giving Trump his marching orders here. They have successfully implemented in-person voter suppression efforts in battleground states and now they've moved on to voting by mail.

I'm not quite sure I understand the end-game, though. It's clear they want Republicans to believe that voting by mail can't be trusted and that elections held mostly by mail are inherently dubious. And they're starving the USPS to engineer problems with the delivery of mail-in ballots. But doesn't this result in mostly suppression of their own voters? In the special election in CA-25, ballots were mailed to every registered voter. And there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in this district, which was recently flipped from red to blue in 2018. Nevertheless, newcomer Mike Garcia (R) defeated Christy Smith (D) by 12 points, simply because Republicans voted and Democrats did not. I did some calling for Smith the day before the election and was told that only 27% of registered Democrats had returned their ballots. The Democrats had lost even before Election Day. Perhaps this explains why not every Republican leader is on board with the dark money group's grand plan and that many Republican-led states are also expanding voting by mail. It still comes down to turnout, and even though it may seem counter-intuitive, mailing ballots to every registered voter doesn't guarantee they will fill it out and mail it back. That's always been the challenge for Democrats—getting voters to show up and vote. But as we saw in Wisconsin, nothing fires up Democratic voters than being told they can't vote.

So, I wonder if the "Honest" Election Project group is helping to do Democrats' work for them and increasing voter turnout. That would be ironic indeed. I only hope that this grand strategy of packing the courts and undermining election integrity isn't to engineer Bush v. Gore on steroids—depress turnout among all voters, call the outcome into question and sue in every state that Trump needs to win. It worked in one state to steal an election, so why not scale it up to steal another one?

M.D. in Savannah, GA, writes: I've seen a lot about how counterintuitive it is for Donald Trump to oppose mail-in voting. This seems especially true for those most susceptible to COVID-19, such as the elderly, who happen to be some of Trump's most trusted supporters. I have also read lately that Trump has had phone conversations with Vladimir Putin. Perhaps Trump has been informed that mail-in voting is more difficult to influence/manipulate than electronic voting, or there are less opportunities to do so.

M.M. in Bloomington, IL, writes: I came to a realization last night about Donald Trump's probable response to a defeat in the November election. He will literally file for the 2024 election on January 20, 2021. His campaign committee will send out daily e-mails asking for respondents' opinion on the current president's performance (with choices like bad, worse, worst), and peppered with phrases like Hiden Biden, Beijing Biden, or Sleepy Joe. Campaigning will give Trump reasons to have more ego-building rallies, and the media will cover it because the public will watch it. In some ways, it is the best of both worlds for Trump: he can have the audience he craves without the responsibility to do anything.

E.K. in Charlotte, NC, writes: I thought I'd mention that, while I don't know any hotel or restaurant owners, there isn't a single person I know who would be sad to see the Republican convention moved elsewhere. No, it'd be the opposite. Perfectly happy, for many reasons. It's not just politics either, though that definitely is a part of it. Traffic in the city is pretty terrible to begin with. We're already used to it being somewhat worse during major events, like Race Week. That's the week in May bookended by the NASCAR All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600. This year was different, since the All-Star race was postponed and the Coca-Cola 600 was held without spectators. Sure, we held the DNC, but that was 8 years ago and the metro population is 15-20% larger than it was then. No one I know was looking forward to the convention being here this time. Am I in a bubble? Probably, yeah, but I never got the sense there was much enthusiasm for it here.

Anyway, back to politics, my main point is that one of the best things Mayor Vi Lyles (D) and Governor Roy Cooper (D) can do, from the perspective of Charlotte residents, is to stick to their guns. There's no upside to letting the RNC and President Trump push them around. Continue to let data inform their decisions and ensure the convention will be held safely. If that means we don't host the convention, so be it.

I also wonder how often the RNC is going to butt heads with convention host cities in the future, given the growing urban-rural partisan divide combined with the infrastructure needed to host an event like this only really existing in cities. That topic is a whole other can of worms, though.

J.C. in Binan, Laguna, Philippines, writes: Another good reason for Roy Cooper not to have the convention in North Carolina is Donald Trump's known penchant for not paying vendors...ever. Considering that he now controls the Trumpblican Party, what's to guarantee that the GOP would pay back the city and state for any costs? One of Cooper's conditions needs to be all money up front—and some extra padding just in case.

M.S. in Knoxville, TN, writes: I increasingly see our current Presidential election trending toward Herbert Hoover versus FDR. I am also increasingly hopeful that Joe Biden can be to our times what Roosevelt was to his. To the extent that the country will consent to being calmed, brought together, and rebuilt, I see Biden as being well positioned to do so, both by personality and experience. I am not by nature optimistic, but I remain hopeful.

On the other hand, I have long feared that Donald Trump would resort to any sort of chicanery to remain in office and that, even in the face of a harsh electoral thrashing, we may need the military to be willing to perform its oath to protect the Constitution to get him out of our White House. Nothing that has happened recently has reduced these fears.

E.H. in Dublin, Ireland, writes: One campaign issue that I'd like to see Joe Biden highlight is his record on abortion. Of all administrations, the one that saw the greatest decline in the number of abortions in the U.S.—according to both the CDC and from the Guttmacher Institute—was that of Obama/Biden. And not just by a little bit; the comparisons are striking. I feel that this is a point that could get some traction with traditional Republicans who don't much like President Trump's style but consider voting Democrat to be tantamount to voting for mountains of aborted babies.

J.W. in West Chester, PA, writes: I am an avid reader, a staunch conservative with a big "R" next to my name, but I have a brain and like to read all viewpoints. I couldn't help but notice how Joe Biden's comment about black voters skipped your pages. Had Trump said something similar it would have been the top story. I love you guys, but come on, you can do better!

V & Z respond: That is a product of our production schedule. He said that on a Friday, and when it comes to Friday (and Saturday) news, we only write it up immediately if we regard something as major news that is also time-sensitive. Otherwise, we hold those stories until Monday. In this case, we did not deem the story to be big enough to warrant a weekend writeup. And by the time Monday rolled around, the situation had evolved such that it was less about what Biden said, and more about the response. And so we rolled our coverage of it into an item on the Veepstakes, and how Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) responded to the remark.

D.S. in Oakton, VA, writes: You wrote: "That is just not how donors and insiders think. In their view, governing well is irrelevant. What matters is which side runs the most and the nastiest attack ads and they feel that the only way to save Trump is to run more and nastier ones..."

Not sure if this was tongue in cheek or a throwaway line, but I don't think it is accurate. To make it correct, I would say "...not how big donors and insiders think. In their view, governing well is irrelevant."

There are a lot of small donors who, for whatever reasons, contribute to national campaigns for President, and senators and congress people in other states, not their own. No matter left or right persuasion, one of the reasons is governing well is very relevant to them, their lives and their futures. It is also a way to show popular support, sort of a poll conducted with dollars. My $25 per month to Cal Cunningham's campaign is not going to get him elected, but I hope it shows him and his team that there is another supporter in another state, who believes he has a shot and would be better at governing than the incumbent.

V & Z respond: You're right, that is exactly what we meant, even if we did not communicate it clearly.

2020 Election, Veepstakes

I.K. in Olympia, WA, writes: Regarding D.A. from Brooklyn's question about Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-MA) seemingly changing stance on "Medicare for All": Why do liberals seem to be so hung-up when Democratic candidates' opinions evolve over time? As someone who works with startup companies, I know that one of the hallmarks of excellent leaders is the ability to adapt to changing realities. I've worked with so many young companies, and I can't think of a single one that ended up producing the same product as the idea that caused them to originally start the company. In Warren's case, perhaps she noticed that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was soundly rejected by primary voters, and that this rejection probably was not because of Sanders' goals, but because of his tactics.

Consider the tactics of Barack Obama. It is clear that his goal was to get the country to single-payer health care. But as he often said "Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Obama is a pragmatist. The Clintons had previously tried to push through a single-payer system, and it failed. Obama tried to push through a public option, which I think was a better strategy. I have lived in three different countries with single-payer systems, and it is obvious to me that if people had a choice between for-profit heath care or a public option, they would (eventually) pick the latter. So a public option is a significantly more pragmatic way to get the U.S. to that goal. But even Obama's public option failed (likely because the health insurance industry understood that they could never compete with a public option over the long term).

Pragmatism is one of the things I loved about Obama. It allowed Obama to enact actual health care reform, which had eluded many past presidents. Likewise, as a pragmatist, Warren has also been able to get things done, even things opposed by powerful interests (e.g., consumer protection). I see Sanders as more of an ideologue, and while this may excite his base, it doesn't help in actually getting things done (consider that his home state wasn't able to actually create a single payer system). So even though I tend to agree with many of Sanders' goals, I never supported him.

F.J. in Brussels, Belgium, writes: I think you're being a little harsh on Elizabeth Warren! I didn't take her statement as a denial of her past stance on Medicare for All. She didn't say, "Oops, I finally changed my mind, Medicare for All is not the best idea for now after all." It's more like, "I have to admit that a majority of people are not yet in favor of Medicare for All, but there is still room for improvement in the current system." It is indeed pragmatic, obviously self-interested, but not really flip-flopping.

D.L. in Cary, NC, writes: I'm pleased to see that Elizabeth Warren, the one candidate I really like, is seen by many as the smart choice for Joe Biden's running mate. But I'm also surprised. Much as it pains me, her constituency is small. Being an intellectual works against you.

In my opinion, Warren has way more going for her, as a true progressive with big ideas, than Barack Obama did. But I don't see her uniting anything. Sanders voters hate her. Moderates hate her. She has little draw outside well-educated, relatively-well-to-do, progressive, white folks like me. So how exactly will she help? I believe the smart play is to pick someone the black community will like. To me, that's more playing to the base; playing to win. Trying to win back Obama-Trump voters feels like playing not to lose, an approach that always loses.

All of this said, I hope I'm dead wrong and Biden picks her. And that she actually helps his chances. She's by far the most qualified candidate out there. And has forgotten more than Biden will ever know.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, writes: I've been thinking for some time about Joe Biden's running mate. I've come to the conclusion the best candidate is Rep. Val Demings (D-FL). Here are some reasons why she should be the nominee:

  • She represents two crucial constituencies within the Democratic Party, minorities and women.
  • She comes from a safe district in FL, so there would be no worry about a possible lost seat.
  • Her presence on the ticket would remind folks about impeachment.
  • She could help rebuild the Obama/Biden coalition that won two elections handily.
  • Should anything happen to Biden while he was in office, she could easily assume the big chair.
  • She comes from Florida.
  • She was police chief in Orlando, FL. Her unique background could help bridge the large gap between minorities and police, something that's been sadly on the front burner again with the trouble going on in Minneapolis.

I didn't really think about Demings as a possible running mate until it was mentioned by someone on this site. But it makes a lot of sense. Her star rose during impeachment and I feel can go way higher in the near future.

J.R. in San Francisco, CA, writes: Val Demings is not just from Florida, but she is from Orlando, on the I-4 line of demarcation separating the northern from the southern part of the state, offering outreach (or inreach) to more traditionally Republican counties.

2020 Election, Polls

R.L. in Alameda, CA, writes: Regarding the recent poll of the South Carolina Senate race showing a statistical dead heat, you wrote: "We are not sure, but it is also possible that upscale white suburban voters miss the old Lindsey Graham, who was John McCain's buddy, and don't like or respect him for suddenly hugging Trump so tightly that if he did it any more tightly the President couldn't breathe".

Jaime Harrison appeared on the Michael Steele podcast last weekend (prior to the poll's release) and basically stated exactly that. According to Harrison, people in South Carolina are angry at Graham for giving up his independence, giving up his bi-partisanship, standing too close to Donald Trump (even though, as you pointed out, the same poll shows Trump with a large lead) and for not defending his good friend, John McCain. This has created an opening for Harrison. I'm not sure of the numbers, but he outraised the Graham campaign by a significant amount in the 1st quarter.

Harrison told a story of going to a town hall (before COVID-19, I think) in a very red county, one that voted for Trump by over 60%. He expected to find 50-60 mostly black people in the room to see him. He was shocked to find a crowd of over 250 mostly white people who were excited to see him. Much of the feedback he received was the aforementioned anger at Graham.

Harrison pointed out that, should he win, it would be historic, not only because both of South Carolina's Senators would be black (the other being Tim Scott, a Republican) but also because Graham was preceded in his seat by Strom Thurmond and, before him, by Burnet Maybank. Both men were devout segregationists.

That this could become a competitive race gets this West Coast liberal excited. Now I am waiting with bated breath to see a poll of the Kentucky Senate race.

R.M. in Port Matilda, PA, writes: If there were just one or two polls showing red states with Joe Biden close or ahead, it would be easy to dismiss, but they seem to be somewhat frequent lately. And the polls that show the South Carolina senate race as close as it! I really hope someone at the DNC is paying attention! I know a week is a lifetime in politics, so they have quite a few lifetimes to dump some resources into these states (SC, GA, NC, TX, UT, MO, LA, MS). Will the Dems win in these places? Odds are, no they won't (especially in the last 4). But if the party's candidates are that close, they should make a play for these places and force the TOP (Trump Old Party) to spend resources there and be ready to capitalize on a potential blue wave. The adage "all politics is local" is mostly untrue these days (save for a few cases like the AL Moore/Jones senate race and the KY Governor race), but with so little ticket splitting going on these days, if Jaime Harrison can pull off an upset in SC, he could potentially carry the state for Biden.

I keep thinking about the Louisiana Governor's race last year where John Bel Edwards (D) won. There wasn't any Roy Moore or Matt Bevin baggage holding back the Republican nominee. I am convinced that if the Democratic Party can figure out how to increase turnout and counteract the GOP voter suppression they have become known for, then the Democrats have a real chance to expand the map in ways not thought possible even one year ago. Even if these efforts are not fruitful for 2020, they may bear fruit in 2022, to blunt a potentially tough year for the Democrats (assuming Biden wins). In addition, it will give the Democrats something to build upon in future years when other states like WI, IA and OH become (potentially) unwinnable due to demographic shifts.

And for the love of all that is good and holy, the Democrats (should they win all the marbles) better not squander the first two years of the Biden administration the way President Obama did where he tried to play nice with the Republicans. Admit PR, DC, and Guam as states, pack the courts, adopt national healthcare and move mountains to make all voting be done via mail.

R.S. in Olympia, WA, writes: Both you and one of your letter writers mentioned surprise about the recent Utah poll. I am not sure that is in fact warranted. Here are the things we know or assume about Utah:

  1. It has a lot of Mormons
  2. Utah is very conservative, because of the politics of Mormons

However, we have seen for a while that many Mormons are, among Republicans, uniquely troubled by Donald Trump. Evan McMullin pulled a large vote share despite being unheard of before 2016. The two swing states with significant Mormon populations, Nevada and Arizona, have moved distinctly to the left. The Mormon church has always had stronger connections to the left of modern American politics than such a conservative institution would predict (see Reid, Harry). Finally, due to historical and theological reasons many Mormons have a greater connection to and understanding of Mexico and Central America than the rest of the country.

It would not suprise me if Utah ended up as Trump +4-8% before returning to generic Republican +20-30%.

J.T. in Draper, UT, writes: Let's not forget that Donald Trump won Utah with only 45% of the vote thanks to Mormon Evan McMullin. Mormons never were, and still are not, very excited about Trump, especially after Church leaders responded to rising nativism with a charitable and pro-immigration public statement in early 2016. The latest Utah poll probably reflects those lingering sentiments. And let's not forget a strong and growing pro-gay community in Salt Lake City, formerly host to a female lesbian Mayor and former gay state senator. Mormondom is officially also easing up on its own anti-gay policies and rhetoric. Utah is turning a little less ruby red, as indicated by recent actions and statements from Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT). The days of the highest-percentage Republican vote totals are long gone. We'll happily leave that to Wyoming and Oklahoma.

R.F. in Waukegan, IL, writes: I noticed your posts about the horrible "swing state poll" from CNN and wondering what they could possibly have been thinking. The truth is that cable TV has been losing 1-2 million subscribers per year in the United States, and the people who are staying skew older. So it's mainly sports fans and people who want to get amped up on Fox News. They're not particularly concerned about facts, and the result is a rise of Yellow Journalism that hasn't been seen in America in over 100 years.

That being said, CNN has been fighting for eyeballs, so over the past few years they've been doing outrageous things for attention, like inviting a certain anti-vaccine nut with a blog, who thinks that microwave ovens put Magic Satan Hitler Crystals in your food, to discuss things as an "expert."

So I'm not surprised that they managed to engineer a poll to claim that Trump is ahead in the swing states, maybe, if you think 30 voters in a place like Florida tells you anything. It's all part of the act of throwing their viewers for a loop and getting attention. The fact that no state level polling from anyone backs that up, in fact, just adds credence to Trump's "fake news" narrative, because I think they all are.

Is it just time for outfits like CNN and Fox News to die so that they'll stop running nonsense?

V & Z respond: While we might not be quite as down on CNN, et al., as you, we did almost write a piece about how badly the cable outlets need the presidential contest to be a true horse race. And if we had indeed done that piece, we would have included this screen shot from CNN's main page on May 16, where the coverage tells you simultaneously that Trump has no chance of winning (story #1) and a real chance of winning (story #4):

The first headline
reads 'Trump will lose in a landslide because of the economy, model predicts' and the fourth one 
reads 'Analysis: Trump has a real shot of winning'

J.Z. in Santa Rosa, CA, writes: Seeing Biden with 315-350 EVs day after day is likely making (anti-Trump) viewers overconfident. Maybe better to have the map that better reflects the fact that state polls are sparse and not that reliable, and that the Biden vs Trump outcome is far less certain than 350-188 suggests? I know there are graphs elsewhere on the site that provide that more uncertain view, but doubt that a lot of people seek it out.

V & Z respond: The top of this page concurrently gives our best guess for what would happen if the election were held today, color coding that communicates at a glance how certain each state's outcome is, and gives a numerical breakdown of electoral votes by category (Strong Dem, Likely Dem, etc.). We think it's the best available blend of information and efficiency. With just 15 seconds' examination, a reader can say: "Well, Biden would probably win the election if it were held today, but keep an eye on Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire to see if his lead there holds." That would be a clearer assessment of the election than, for example, CNN is offering much of the time these days. It's also worth noting that the only unpolled states remaining are deep red, except for Oregon, which is deep blue. In other words, the lack of up-to-date information isn't so much of a problem anymore.

The Trump Coup

P.S. in Memphis, TN, writes: C.S. in Albuquerque and A.G in Santa Clarita leave out a pretty critical assumption. Currently, our population is pretty divided politically. An insurrection in America would also depend on the ability to stay concealed from our military. If my neighbor is wanting to start a revolt or shoot a cop in my neighborhood, I will be a very willing informant. For the record, I wouldn't care whether it was a bunch of Democrats or Republicans organizing it. Even the most extreme states have about 1/3rd of the population with different beliefs than the party in charge. The sort of guerrilla warfare these commenters are describing requires a tremendous amount of political will and would fall apart very quickly when just one of their neighbors doesn't have the exact political belief they have. Keep in mind that the South was so united during the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot in the South. The lack of such unity today would make an actual revolt almost impossible in America.

D.E. in Lititz, PA, writes: I would like to add my two cents to discussion about the viability of a Trump coup or civil war if he loses the election. Yes, as most folks have pointed out, a coup by Trump would not lead to the type of war we associate with the Civil War—sorry, no Battle of Possum Creek in the future. It would at the most be a more guerrilla-type war. Even then, I don't think it would ever rise to the level of effectiveness where various localities are in open rebellion.

Unfortunately, we have a few examples of what that kind of "civil war" would look like in the Standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Bundy Standoff. Both were somewhat amateur affairs—remember how these militia types at Malheur had forgotten to pack underwear, toilet paper and food before their siege. Can anyone imagine our military forces going into battle so unprepared or letting such a minor inconvenience of dirty underwear and/or no toilet paper stop them from their combat missions? Part of the reason is that a lot of these militia types are military poseurs or wannabes. Yes, some have had some military experience, but usually only at the most basic level. In reading comments about the current batch of armed protesters, real combat veterans remark on how their dress and accoutrements are a hodgepodge of military gear, which tells the veterans these guys are more into dressing up and playing army than actually being a cohesive fighting force.

Also, while there is often a friendly rivalry between the different armed forces, when I read about these different militia groups I am struck by how much malicious and petty squabbling there is between the factions. During Malheur, the Bundy Family and the Three Percenters were constantly butting heads on all kinds of issues. I can't see but how the American military couldn't nullify these groups without breaking a sweat based on superior technology, cohesion of forces and superior tactical skills. The only caveat to this is that, like Malheur, Bundy, Waco and Ruby Ridge these acts of suppression would take time because the military would want to disarm any coup by Americans with as little loss of lives as possible. Unfortunately, the only viable recourse that the militias would have to put forth their cause would be terrorism.

Probably the most "successful" and infamous of these militia types is Timothy McVeigh. While he had military experience in the First Gulf War, he also quickly washed out in trying to qualify for Army Special Forces. He was also somewhat of a lone wolf and really had no follow-up plan to his Oklahoma City Bombing. Trump's Coup would have to resort to similar terrorist acts to make their cause known, else they become another siege. Even in the very conservative rural area where Malheur was located, the residents overwhelmingly rejected the antics of the Bundys. I think a huge portion of Americans would sour quickly on any type of terrorist attacks that killed civilians, and that would include a substantial number of Trump voters who would find those acts repellent. Unless Trump can actually peel away a significant portion of the military, any coup of his supporters is doomed to failure. Given how Donald Trump has often ridden roughshod over our armed forces, I think there would be little to no buy-in for a Trump coup.

E.W. in New Orleans, LA, writes: I enjoy reading your many articles and reader submissions from folks that know particular topics far more than I do. The rare instance where I have some expertise has arisen however, and I feel like I should chime in. The topic of Trump refusing to leave office following a defeat this fall, the responsibilities of various law enforcement entities for his removal, and the threat of a coup were all brought up. By way of background, I am a retired 35D, Army Intel Officer, and have focused my academic research on civilian-military relations. Conflict between the military and civilian leadership can take many forms. V&Z are correct that in the case of the American Civil War, armed civilians ultimately fared poorly against the U.S. Army, and if the entire United States military united behind keeping Trump in office, individual American citizens with AR-15s would stand no chance of waging conventional warfare. An astute reader pointed out an insurgency would be the likely course of action for resistance against such a move. Even though we now have 18 years of COIN (Counter Insurgency) experience, there are still far more losses than wins in the history of COIN.

What is probably more useful to examine, though, is the actual likely disposition of the military in the event of a disputed election. Many factors determine the position of the military in a society and influence its response to crisis: strength of civil institutions, respect for democratic norms, size and composition of the armed forces, underlying cleavages in society, foreign threats, and independent bases of power in society. Pakistan, for example, has historically faced numerous outside security threats, possessed weak civil institutions, and had difficulties with devotional cleavages. Additionally, only the Pakistani army and the ISI (Intelligence) have wielded real power. Consequently, Pakistan has suffered many coups in their short history.

In the United States, the Army, Navy, and Air Force all maintain significant separation (and rivalry). Every state has state police and National Guard units. The list of federal agencies with armed personnel is extensive. Our society does not currently face significant outside military threats and our society has hundreds of independent power bases, most notably the states, and a long history of strong civil institutions. In short, the United States is an extremely poor candidate for a military or military-backed coup, regardless of what Trump does. If he refuses to leave office or disputes the validity of the election, the Joint Chiefs will not act to prevent the lawful installation of the new president, although the actions of the Secret Service on the ground and in the room is really what I wonder about. In the end, someone would have to give the final order on who is the president and needs to be guarded, and who is a trespasser and needs to leave.

V & Z respond: We thank you for your expertise and, of course, your service. We will also add our opinion that if there is any entity who rates loyalty to the office over loyalty to the person more highly than the military does, it's the U.S. Secret Service.

Trump vs. Twitter

R.H. in Santa Ana, CA, writes: Donald Trump's executive order on social media platforms is certain to have one effect and quite unlikely to have any other: Every zillionaire in Silicon Valley (with the possible exception of Peter Thiel) will open their checkbooks and make money flow like rain on the Democrats who are running for the Senate and on the one Democrat who is running for the Presidency. Note that there is no public policy impetus behind the EO, it is solely the result of the man-child's frustration at the perceived slight he got from @Jack.

R.M. in Brooklyn, NY, writes: Twitter continues to push back against Trump, and I speculate that Trump may have bitten off more than he can chew by trying to go after Big Tech. Twitter is slowly upping the restrictions on Trump, and I can imagine them and the other platforms deciding that even the amount of traffic Trump drives is not worth the hassle, as well as the risk that he would go after them if re-elected. Social media could shut Trump down and ban him entirely.

It is this aspect that has gotten me thinking about then-senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI) going after the Army, and the Army turning around and going after Tail-Gunner Joe, which was the beginning of the end of his reign of terror. And yes, I'm also disturbed that I can analogize the power of Big Tech today to that of the Army in the 1950s.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, writes: In the item "Trump Gone Wild, Part II: Inaccurate Tweets" you wrote: "On the other hand, if [Donald Trump's] Twitter feed is littered with 'this is not true' warnings, it's going to be hard for any but the most faithful to completely ignore that."

I don't profess to understand the cognitive dissonance of the Trump faithful, but I have noticed consistent trends. I believe the Trump faithful will take the Twitter label of "Get the facts about..." as a golden badge of verification and will attribute more credence to the Trump tweets that have that label as the real truth that "they" don't want us to know. So, the Trump faithful won't be ignoring that label, they will be looking for it to identify the "best" and "most valuable" Trump tweets.

J.L. in Cincinnati, OH, writes: You wrote: "It is true that some conservatives have been booted from the platform, but it was invariably for violation of Twitter's terms of service."

However, the Twitter rules contain several provisions that clearly affect the full expression of conservative views far more than liberal views:

  • Glorification of violence
  • Violent extremism
  • Targeted harassment
  • The civic integrity policy, to the extent to which conservatives are anti-democratic
  • And especially the hateful conduct policy, because a ban on attacks on the basis of "race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, [or] religious affiliation" seriously shuts down a substantial amount of conservative discourse. That policy alone bars expressing sincerely-held beliefs that black men can't be trusted to keep from abusing white women in sexual relationships, that the Roma are naturally inclined to steal, that Persians are spies for the Ayatollah, that Dalits stink like rotten curry and openly defecate on the street, that gay men are an abomination against God, that women ought not to be in positions of authority over men, that trans women and men are freaks who should be kept away from children, and that Muslims are either terrorists or terrorists-in-waiting.

A steadfast Trump supporter would seriously need to hold back to keep from being booted from Twitter, and other large social-media sites aren't much different; meanwhile, liberals, socialists, and other non-right-wing types may well fall afoul of the policies (most likely "targeted harassment" or the policy on private information when they post out of righteous indignation), but the policies don't hit at the core of their worldviews.

Behavioral Issues

A.C. in Aachen, Germany, writes: Being into social psychology quite a bit, I very much liked your overview of the theory of cognitive dissonance in response to the question about why Trump's support is so consistent with his base. As the theory is so influential (more than 1,000 studies over the decades), I would like to add a few aspects and widen the scope of the answer.

You talked about how dissonance might be reduced, but I think this deserves a closer look. Festinger (who developed the theory) assumed that people use the path that requires the least change of affected cognitions. There are basically three ways to reduce dissonance:

  1. Addition of consonant information, e.g. finding ways to support the decision (he appointed judges, cut taxes, owned the Liberals etc.)

  2. Subtract dissonant information, e.g. weaken the notion that Trump is a moron (smear campaign, liberal hoax, witch hunt, biased media, ignoring or not perceiving facts etc.)

  3. Change of behavior, which in this case would mean not to favor Trump any longer and probably not vote for him again.

Given the high level of commitment in a very polarized elecorate, it's plausible to believe that many voters will not choose the third path, as the number of cognitions to be rearranged would be quite high. It demands much less cognitive effort to follow the first path, the second path, or both.

That said, the theory also suggests that different outcomes might take place depending on what lines of attack are used during the campaign. It doesn't make sense to reach out to hardcore Trumpers; for them the change in the cognitive system is far too large. But independents, old-school Republicans and Democrats who voted Trump in 2016 might well be persuadable. For them, I think the challenge is to frame the message in an way that allows persuadable voters to change to the Democrats without having to change cognitions too much. "Trump is an idiot, you see it yourself, and we told you all along" would not do the job. On the other hand, something like "we understand that there might have been reasons to vote Trump then, but we got your message, we changed, it's ok to vote Democrats this year." Of course, this messaging would cause dissonance for the progressive wing of the Democratic party, but there is always some amount of 3D chess involved.

V & Z respond: The term that many commenters use these days for this way of thinking is "permission structure," and it's clearly the basis of what the folks at the Lincoln Project are doing.

M.B. in Cleveland, OH, writes: You wrote that "women are compelled to be more constrained, at risk of triggering a misogynistic reaction. Hillary Clinton was well aware of this in 2016, and chose her battles carefully, only counter-punching Donald Trump on occasion, and often in a fairly subtle fashion..."

I have long believed that when Trump was stalking Clinton during the October 9, 2016, debate, had she answered the audience member's question with: "I will get to your question in a moment, but first, I want to say something. So many women have had the experience of a powerful man lurking over their shoulders, breathing down their necks. So many women have been unable to say what I am about to say...[to Trump] It is my turn to speak. Go sit down and wait for your turn! [to the moderators] And you— make sure he stays there when I have the floor!" then that would have been Game, Set, Match. Election over. How could he have possibly responded?

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, writes: The thing that struck me first about the clip of Donald Trump from Memorial Day is that for all his purported patriotism, he does not know the proper way to salute the flag. With a few exceptions, the proper civilian salute is to place one's right hand over one's heart, as Mike Pence did just a few steps away. Trump gave a military salute, which is improper for a person with his (lack of a) service record. (But hey, if he needs an excuse for his "instability", maybe he can get some more mileage out of the bone spurs.)

J.A. in Henderson, NV, writes: We have a "novel" presidency and president. We have never seen anything like it. It attacks indiscriminately. It only cares about its own survival. It is a parasitic type of organism that feeds off of, sickens and destroys the lives of innocent victims. It is impervious to logic, good sense and decency. It needs to be culled and ended, but unfortunately, we need to wait until it has run its course or a humane treatment is found and applied on Election Day.

P.S. in Wellington, New Zealand, writes: I would not be surprised if (in a few years), conspiratorially minded folk on the US right claim that Donald Trump was himself a deep state agent, placed in power in order to destroy the Republican Party from the inside.

Legal Matters

S.G. in Newark, NJ, writes: A few years ago Justice Stephen Breyer came to speak at the law school where I teach. When asked about ideological schisms on the Supreme Court, he replied (much like the father of J.T. in Greensboro) that most of the Court's opinions are unanimous, and concerns about politically-based divisions are exaggerated.

This argument misses the point, and those who make it know that it does. It's nice that nine people with diverse ideologies can agree on the correct resolution of legal disputes that do not directly affect the amount of power those ideologies wield in the way the country is governed. But few people pay attention to those decisions, which have little effect on perceptions of the Court. What matters is how the Court behaves in highly-visible cases with obvious, important political, ideological, and policy consequences. In those cases, sadly, the outcomes and the lineup of votes has been highly though not perfectly predictable for several decades. The pattern is getting worse, not better, and it undermines the Court's claim of legitimacy.

Even in the cases that result in unanimous or near-unanimous opinions, the Court tends to the "conservative" (in the sense of supporting the status quo and existing vested interests). This tendency is baked in by design (life tenure) and by the method of selection (generally favoring people with strong connections to powerful political and economic interests). In the Court's history, the exceptions to this tendency prove the rule.

T.B. in Pinecrest, CA, writes: Did you really mean to call Chief Justice John Roberts a "hyper-partisan toady"? Trump did not appoint Chief Justice Roberts; George W. Bush did. Although Justice Roberts has a conservative worldview, he has attempted at least to preserve the Court's reputation for unbiased jurisprudence, rather than simply putting politics (and President Tweety's ego) first at all times.

Did you perhaps instead mean Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, instead? President Tweety did appoint him, and he's been accused of more partisanship than Chief Justice Roberts has.

V & Z respond: We did indeed mean to include Roberts. He may not have been appointed by Trump, but he's overseen plenty of rulings (Citizens United, Shelby County v. Holder) that don't much look like calling balls and strikes. Further, when he—like Justice Breyer in the anecdote above—says things like "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges" without qualifying that statement in any way, it indicates, in our view, that he's either living in a bubble or being willfully dishonest. Others may disagree, but that is our viewpoint.

B.B. in Panama City Beach, FL, writes: I think there are a number of reasons Florida will struggle to comply with Judge Robert L. Hinkle's order regarding felons' voting rights.

Although the county clerks know (or can calculate) the exact amount owed, there is no way they will be able to provide that information (accurately) to the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) in 20 days. They may have to pull 1 million individual court orders. For this reason alone, the vast majority of felons will become voters.

Further, although the state department of corrections has a list of released felons and their last known addresses, the SOE does not. Even if they were to obtain that list, they don't know where the person is living now. Thus, there is no way for the SOE to know which county/precinct to assign to the voter.

Lastly, although the SOE can obtain a list of released felons, there is no way to accurately match up that list to live persons. If John Smith registers to vote, which of the John Smiths is he? Worse, there is no way for the SOE to determine whether the released felon is alive or deceased, making it even more difficult to match up voters to data.

The result is that it puts the burden of proving disenfranchisement onto the state and, because of the aforementioned difficulties in doing so, the vast majority of felons will be able to register and vote, if they want to.

The Scientists Strike Back

J.W. in Indianapolis, IN, writes: comments last week, K.J. from Roanoke, VA, wrote: and faith do not have to be at odds. The 40% that view earth as young are not necessarily anti-science. It's all about interpretation. For example, do you assume that natural processes have always taken place as they do now, or do you allow for the possibility that a catastrophic flood could cause rapid burial and rock formation that make the earth appear far older than it actually is?

That small segment alone contains numerous assertions that are most certainly at odds with the specific findings of dozens of fields of science (both hard and soft), as well as the scientific method itself. The consistency of the laws of nature throughout time and space is a fundamental assumption of science. In addition to violating Occam's Razor, asserting changes in the laws of the universe without any evidence whatsoever is an attempt to make the evidence support the conclusion, rather than the other way around, which defeats the entire purpose of the scientific method. There is also no evidence for a massive flood in the past few thousand years. There are living organisms on Earth that predate when it was supposed to have happened! To put it in perspective, arguing for a world that is 6,000 years old is proportionally as accurate as arguing that the oldest human in recorded history lived to the ripe old age of 1 hour, 25 minutes, and 7 seconds.

Science and faith don't have to be at odds with one another, as long as faith isn't expected to be treated as an equally legitimate method for uncovering material truths. The Dalai Lama's perspective on science, for example, is one that even I, a strong atheist, can understand and respect. Demands for exceptions to the laws of physics are not. Young earth creationism is only marginally less nonsensical than flat eartherism, and should be treated as such.

A.W. in Melrose, MA, writes: I'd just like to add two more cents to the "science vs. religion" question, if I may, by emphasizing a point about science that S.S. touched on and folks like K.J. seem to fundamentally misunderstand.

As K.J. so aptly demonstrated, no amount of scientific observation can "prove" anything beyond the possibility of doubt—there is always some story that can be devised that would fit the data but contradict the theory. But from a scientific point of view, that's ok! Instead of trying to reveal a definitive "Truth" that should be believed, science is a system for assessing different possibilities based on the information available. Scientists constantly ask questions like, "What observations lead to this theory? How reliable are those observations? How well does the theory fit those observations? And are there other pieces of information that we're ignoring?" Knowing all of that, you can take a proposed explanation for the world and accept or reject it provisionally, based on what is known at the time. if more information comes in, you are allowed—encouraged, even—to go back and change your mind! Religious belief simply does not work that way; it is an entirely different beast from scientific "belief."

One more point: when it comes time to make an important decision, it would be nice to rely exclusively on things you know to be true, but in the real world, there is no such thing. Science helps you understand what the preponderance of the evidence suggests, assess how reliable that conclusion is likely to be, and predict the most likely consequences of your actions. For climate change, the preponderance of evidence suggests strongly that the climate is warming due to human action, and that the costs of both acting and not acting are high—but those of not acting are much higher than the opposite. None of this is certain—as K.J. showed, you can always find some counter-explanation if you try hard enough—but an honest reading of the data shows it is very, very likely to be true. That's good enough for me.

J.A.W. in San Francisco, CA, writes: Climate change science questioner K.J. of Roanoke, VA asks "What does the science actually say?" For the curious non-specialist, I often steer folk to for simple, well-informed explanations and illustrations. The info hiding behind the big buttons "Evidence," "Causes," and "Effects" is excellent, debunking things like the sunspot myth in one chart. Further, the modestly-paid NASA scientists (whose mission has shifted to studying planet Earth in recent decades) are generally not oriented to "money or power," which K.J. correctly surmises can induce bias.

C.J. in Boulder, CO, writes: I can't let the letter from K.J. get by without a response. I'll pass for now on the misrepresentation of scientists, geology, and climate science (feel free to go to or similar sites for information and links). I will say that a degree in meteorology is not a degree in climate science any more than a degree in journalism is a degree in history. Climate science has not been a substantial part of degree programs aimed at turning out forecasters until fairly recently.

Anyways, the phrase that I hate is "encouraging people for 15+ years to do their own research." And just what background and experience do people have in "doing their own research"? If you haven't written a scientific review paper that went through peer review, you really haven't been schooled in all the ins and outs of really doing literature research. Most publishing scientists have at some point been through that mill. What is it about science that makes people think they can be better than people who spend their lives working on it? After all, most of the folks who drive cars can't fix them, and most of the folks who fix cars can't build them, and even most of the folks who build cars can't design them, so why would we have a bunch of random drivers decide how to build a car? It's a free country, so you can believe what you want, but the price of "doing your own research" is often finding claptrap that feels right.

As a working academic scientist (not making either fame or fortune from such an activity), I understand having a critical eye for what science items make the popular press, but carrying it to the extreme of disbelief exhibited by folks like K.J. is just replacing reality with some fantasy world.

J.S. in Springboro, OH, writes: I just had to respond to K.J. in Roanoke, VA who suggested that the earth may not be as old as scientists agree it is because they assume that "natural processes have always taken place as they do now." Unfortunately, the alternatives he suggests, as well as other ideas in his recommended books, have been completely debunked. To take one example, young-earthers frequently attack carbon dating as unreliable since it assumes carbon values that may not be valid for early-Earth times. But they willfully ignore that the age of the earth is not based on carbon dating, but instead radiometric dating, which involves a process that simply cannot have changed over time. Sadly, explaining why would take at least all the words in your current posting but as a trained high-energy physicist, I do understand the science. The books he suggests may talk a good game, but their science is not only questionable but intellectually dishonest.

N.T. in Dallas, TX, writes: Do not be closed minded to the Magrathean. For open-minded people, I point out: "Slartibartfast is a Magrathean, and a designer of planets. His favorite part of the job is creating coastlines, the most notable of which are the fjords found on the coast of Norway on planet Earth, for which he won an award."

Seriously the mailbag contribution from K.J. is a perfect example of CNN's syndrome: the fallacious position that any 2 theses are worthy of equal time/consideration. The 'rapid flood' story has more holes and requires much more suspension of disbelief than taking Douglas Adams' work as historical.

History, Channeled

G.L. in Mahopac, NY, writes: Benjamin Franklin was an early advocate of abolishing slavery, but he held slaves until mid-life, printed advertisements for slaves in his newspaper, and changed only gradually. Some of the change may have been political, but he also read widely, including British and Quaker anti-slavery writings, and he observed the intellectual abilities of Black children. He ended up as the President of an abolitionist society in Pennsylvania.

V & Z respond: We are generally believers that folks should be given credit for ending up in the right place, even if they started in the wrong place, e.g., Robert Byrd and George Wallace.

P.S. in Framingham, MA, writes: I was struck to learn from your response to the question from J.M. of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia that Calvin Coolidge had declared the civil rights of people of color "just as sacred as those of any other citizen"—definitely an improvement over Woodrow Wilson, who apparently segregated the White House in 1913.

However, Coolidge signed into law the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which was the most restrictive in a series of measures in the late 1910s and early 1920s (the first of which was pocket-vetoed by Wilson) that shut down the open immigration policy that this country had for many years prior, establishing low quotas for immigration by people born in parts of the world other than northern and western Europe. Johnson-Reed was apparently a top legislative priority of the Ku Klux Klan, among others. It proved to be a death sentence 20 years later for those attempting to flee extermination by the Nazi regime—including two of my great-grandparents, five of my great-aunts, five of my great-uncles, and four of my cousins-once-removed (who were children when murdered).

Johnson-Reed's quota system was superseded, finally, by the Immigration Act of 1965—the life's work of Representative Emanuel Celler of New York. I grew up in Michigan and was struck to learn that Celler's co-sponsor in the Senate for the 1965 immigration act was none other than Phil Hart, for many years Michigan's senior senator. Hart—remembered as "the conscience of the Senate"—likely had no adverse personal or familial impact from Johnson-Reed, but he must have seen that it was a wrong that needed to be righted, and that he, as Senator from the state of residence of Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, was in a unique and historically significant position to help do so.

B.W. in Flagstaff, AZ, writes: Another factor in favor of rating Nixon more liberal: He signed into law the Legal Services Corporation Act, which funnels significant congressional appropriations to a national network of nonprofit law firms that generally focus on helping low-income Americans with a variety of non-criminal legal issues. In recent decades, Democrats have generally increased LSC funding while Republicans have generally cut it; ergo, the fact that Nixon signed it into law arguably pushes his alignment further left.

R.A. in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, writes: I thought you might find this analysis interesting. I took your groupings of U.S. presidents, and figured out the average rank for each category based on the polls located here (the lower the number, the better):

Category Average Ranking
Democrat 16
Republican 25
Liberal Democrat 10
Moderate Democrat 11
Centrist Democrat 22
Centrist Republican 24
Moderate Republican 24
Conservative Republican 31
Moderate 18
Strong 21
Centrist 23

I think the results are quite striking!

D.B. in Oak Beach, NY, writes: Thank you for your response to my question about Congressional politicians who enjoyed long careers despite being ideologically mismatched to their constituents. Carl Hayden is indeed a perfect example. Also pretty good is Tom Harkin—five terms in the House from a rural Iowa district and five terms as a U.S. Senator. He seems much more liberal than the voters of Iowa. Also, Quentin Burdick, who won North Dakota's at-large seat in 1958, a special election for a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 1960, and reelection in 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982. I'm not sure when prairie populism ebbed but it would seem to have occurred while he was still voting from the left in the Senate.

C.R. in Rochester, MN, writes: In response to the question about the most electorally durable politician in U.S. history, you wrote that the answer probably wasn't a representative, because "if a member of the House drifts out of alignment with their constituents, there is a chance every two years for them to get booted, and eventually they will be. Further, it's pretty common for long-serving House members to be re-matched with apropos districts as maps are redrawn every 10 years."

I don't disagree with that assessment, but if we were to look for an example of a Representative who's proven durable, I'd nominate Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN). He's represented Minnesota's 7th district for nearly 30 years. A very large, very rural district that borders the Dakotas, he first won at a time when farmers were a fairly swingy constituency, and it wasn't all that uncommon for a Democrat to do well in rural Midwest districts. Since then, he's continued to win re-election despite the fact that the demographic makeup of the district has stayed extremely white, rural, and otherwise Republican. In 2016, Donald Trump carried the district over Hillary Clinton by a vote of 62% to 31%, but Peterson beat his Republican opponent by a small but healthy margin of 53% to 47%. He's a Blue Dog Democrat, who voted against impeachment and the ACA, among other things, but who has been a loyal soldier on bills that can't afford defections. He's also supported several bills that are wildly unpopular with Republicans, including a $15/hr minimum wage, citizenship for DREAMers, and trans rights legislation. He's managed to remain popular in his district by being a major advocate for farmers and biofuels as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. A moderate-but-not-a-DINO who's won for decades in a place that hasn't voted for a Democratic president this millennium? That's durability!

D.S. in Chapel Hill, NC, writes: You identified Andrew Jackson as having been born in South Carolina. As a boy growing up in North Carolina, I was taught that Jackson was born in the Tarheel State. The state capitol has a statue of him (along with statues of North Carolina-born presidents Polk and Johnson) where Jackson is identified as being from Union County, NC.

A quick check of the all-knowing Internet yields the following:

The exact location of Jackson's birth is unknown, as the area was still being settled and surveyed. Since the Waxhaws settlement was still being established somewhere near the border of North and South Carolina, the precise area of his upbringing is difficult to identify. Jackson always claimed South Carolina as his birthplace, while an aunt who was present at his birth argued that he was actually born in North Carolina.

Given that the question of Old Hickory's birthplace seems to be unsettled, I'm wondering why you chose to identify SC as the state of his birth without any caveats. On the other hand, given what I now know about the kind of man he was, as far as I'm concerned, the Palmetto State can have him.

V & Z respond: In answer to your question, it is because that is the state generally used in the literature. And the reason that it's used is that people are generally afforded the identity they choose (including birthplace) unless there is strong reason to act otherwise.

On Pronouns

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, writes: I remember when my grandfather would refer to "colored" people and I'd cringe and correct him that we don't use that word anymore. I'd explain language evolves and that's now considered offensive and he should say "black" or "African American." Or my mother would say those "Orientals" and I'd cringe and educate her that "Asian" is now the accepted description to use.

I cringe just like that every time I see you use "s/he" or just "he" for the convenience. This has come up before and honestly, your judgment on using "s/he" is wrong. Language changes and evolves. Forcing a binary description on gender now feels just as outdated and insulting as "colored" or "Orientals."

This has come up before and your reasoning seems to be more an unwillingness to grow and change than anything else. I think it's time to stop being stubborn and start using use the pronouns "they, them, theirs" as the accepted gender-neutral alternative. The 2015 "Word of the Year" as designated by the American Dialect Society was the singular "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun. That was five years ago!

D.G. in Marrickville, NSW, Australia, writes: The whole concept of non-binary gender can be extremely confusing to some people. But it is an increasing phenomenon, and the reasons for that are complicated. I wish I could say those reasons, but as someone who sort of understands those reasons through editing theses, as opposed to studying it himself, I feel I would be doing those people a disservice. Hopefully a gender non-binary person will write in to describe them in my place.

That said, most gender non-binary people prefer to be called 'they' when referred to in the third person singular. There are a few other words, but they are usually regional, and in some cases are often used as an insult as much as a descriptor, so 'they' works best on an international level, despite its grammatical problems.

Gender non-binary people are not the only reason you should stop using the 's/he' descriptor, they are just the moral reason, From a technical editor's point of view, the slash separates different meanings. For example, when a mechanical device has a plug that goes 'in' it is male, and when it has an insertion point it is 'female', so it is an 'm/f' outlet. By putting the 's' as part of the 'he' it corrupts what the slash means. I won't debate the sexual politics of that, but it shows the way a slash is supposed to be used—that is, as a separation of two complete opposites.

R.M. in Lincoln, OR, writes: You guys do a great job of putting your site together. I'm amazed by how much copy you produce every day. Petty mistakes in grammar and typos are inevitable. Your accuracy rate is very high. I'm speaking as a retired newspaper editor with 40 years of experience. I wanted to point out that the singular use of "they" is not merely "now acceptable." It has been acceptable and actually standard for 600 years. Here's a great exploration of the topic.

M.A.H. in Akron, PA, writes: Please, please, please stop editing people's words to say "s/he".

I'm some 45+ years of age, so I'm familiar with the desire to be grammatically correct—avoiding the singular "they" —but using "s/he" is worse. "He or she" and "she or he" are both awkward as well, but they're both "more correct" than "s/he". I recommend you just give in to the singular "they".

Your readers won't mind, I promise. If one does object, they will probably prefer "she or he" to the ugly, unspeakable "s/he." And then we're back to the place of deciding between "he or she" or "they". So then, as with all language disputes, we turn to the bard himself: Even Shakespeare preferred the singular "they".

V & Z respond: We assure all correspondents that the issue is not our narrow-mindedness, and that we really do get complaints no matter which option we choose.

Bad Grammer

L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, writes: Thank you for running the linguistics-oriented comments on Sunday, 5/24. We were in stitches, in our household. It brought to mind this priceless scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian.

As an aside, my husband was a linguistics major and I was a language major who took many ling courses. We were taught that living languages transform and simultaneously generate new forms. And, as much as it may pain us, you are absolutely correct: the English language is losing the distinction between nominative, accusative, and dative cases, which is why the forms who and whom are now often used interchangeably in speech and writing. It's simply another change to the language, just like the slow ebb of the use of the Oxford comma. (Thank goodness we never had a locative case in English and instead use a prepositional phrase.)

Sorry to add another email to the TP roll question, but that whole discussion really tickled our funny bones.

J.C. in Shawnee, OK, writes: I could care less about not caring less, but would you mind noting that "media" and "data" are plural?

A.L. in Saugerties, New York, writes: Reading about the whomever/whoever debate in today's posting reminded me of this hilarious clip from "The Office."


D.K. in Cleveland, OH, writes: Cleveland joke? Really? Do you think you have too many readers? I used to get a lot of info from Fivethirtyeight until Silver popped off about '"the libs."

V & Z respond: We have made enough jokes about the Yinzers, particularly in reference to the Steelers' humiliating Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the mighty Green Bay Packers, that we thought we owed them one.

I.C. in South Park, CO, writes:

You wrote: "In short, if the Lone Ranger and Maverick from Top Gun had a child (somehow overcoming the fact that they're both men and both fictional), then that child would be Joe Biden." Your parenthetical betrays that you don't have much familiarity with fanfiction. As Rule 34 states, if it exists, there is porn of it. Not that all fanfiction is porn, of course, but "mpreg", or male pregnancy, is a fanfiction staple, which recently made The New York Times!

Just for fun, I checked the Archive of Our Own for Lone Ranger and Maverick mpreg. I am sad to report that there are only three Maverick mpreg stories, and no Lone Ranger mpreg stories, and no stories at all featuring both heroes in a relationship of any sort. However, if any appear in the coming months, I will have no doubt that the writer was inspired by your comment.

V & Z respond: Recalling yesterday's question about fake e-mails, if ever there was a message that raises a red flag, it's gotta be a message about exotic pornography sent to us from South Park. However, we are completely confident that this is legit.

Also, (Z) wrote his dissertation on Civil War reenactors. One of the oddest days of his graduate career was the day he learned that Amazon sells reenactor erotica (link is SFW).

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May30 Trump Had a Busy Day on Friday
May30 Saturday Q&A
May30 Today's Presidential Polls
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May29 Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
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May29 Today's Senate Polls
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