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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

If you're looking to read about filibusters, time travel, the Roman empire, Kung Pao chicken, and the worst immigrants ever, you came to the right place.

Q: How does it work that someone can be charged and convicted with two separate murder charges, second- and third-degree, for the same act? Doesn't the greater encompass the lesser? For that matter, if someone gets first-degree murder, are they also eligible for two more charges; 2nd and 3rd? Isn't that redundant?

Further, isn't the whole idea of manslaughter that it's involuntary? If so, how can someone be convicted of both murder and manslaughter as well? Don't they contradict?
M.K., New York, NY

A: There is a spectrum of charges that might be filed in the event of a homicide that the authorities deem to be a violation of the law. At one end of the spectrum, depending on the state, is either involuntary manslaughter, or the slightly lesser charge of constructive manslaughter. Both of these describe situations where the homicide was unintentional, but was the byproduct of an intentional or reckless act. At the other end of the spectrum is first-degree murder, where the homicide was deliberate and involved "malice aforethought." In between those two extremes are various other levels of manslaughter/murder with the differences rooted in things like state of mind, level of recklessness, and the extent to which the death was a likely or foreseeable consequence of some other criminal act.

The distinction between manslaughter and murder is not that one is voluntary and the other is not. There are manslaughters that are voluntary; "heat of the moment" killings are often charged as voluntary manslaughter because the killing was intentional but was not planned. There are also murders that are involuntary, usually because they were the product of other voluntary, violent, and criminal acts (like, say, assaulting someone and cutting off their oxygen supply).

The (Minnesota) Star Tribune reported the specific instructions that were put before the Derek Chauvin jury on each charge:

Second-degree unintentional murder: Chauvin unintentionally caused Floyd's death while committing or attempting to commit felony third-degree assault.

Third-degree murder: Chauvin caused Floyd's death by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.

Second-degree manslaughter: Chauvin, by his culpable negligence, created an unreasonable risk and consciously took the chances of causing Floyd's death.

It seems pretty clear to us that these are not mutually exclusive, and it was also clear to the judge and to the district attorney. That said, Chauvin's lawyers will certainly look into the possibility of arguing that all three of these things could not be simultaneously true.

Sometimes, a DA will only charge one sort of homicide, so as to avoid giving a jury an "out," in case the jury might prefer to be merciful. But it's more common to charge multiple sorts of homicide, so as to give the jury multiple options in case they don't agree on the most serious charge. That said, in some states, it is not legal to find someone guilty of the more serious charge without also finding them guilty of the lesser charges as well. In any event, once multiple types of homicides are charged, the jury has a duty to deliver an answer on each.

There is one other benefit to prosecutors in charging multiple types of homicide. Although Chauvin has been convicted of three different types, he will only serve the sentence imposed for the most serious. If he manages, on appeal, to persuade a judge that the second-degree murder conviction was incorrectly adjudicated, then it will help...not at all, because the third-degree conviction would kick in, and carries the exact same sentence. Chauvin's attorneys would have to convince a judge to vacate both of the murder convictions to get his sentence reduced, and he'd have to get all three vacated to get out of prison. Convincing a judge to overturn two or three convictions is a much tougher task than convincing a judge to overturn one.

Q: I've heard that 46 people have been killed by police since the trial of Derek Chauvin began. Are there any statistics about how many policemen and women have been killed by suspects they were trying to arrest?

It is clear to me that the police are afraid of the people they interact with. Is there any basis for that fear based on the number of officers killed?
F.F., San Francisco, CA

A: As we noted in last week's Q&A, there is no central repository of data for police-related shootings. So, total precision is not really possible here. Still, an average of 2.7 Americans are shot and killed by police each day. The Chauvin trial commenced on March 8 and ended on April 20, which is 44 days. So, on average, we would expect there to be 118 Americans shot and killed by police over that timeframe, not 46.

As to police officers killed, Officer Down tends to be on top of that. They don't always have details, but they report that 17 officers have died in 2021 due to gunfire, 7 due to vehicular assault, 2 due to stabbings, 3 due to other forms of assault. That's a total of 29. It's not clear that all took place during attempted arrests, but surely most of them did.

Obviously, there is some basis for police officers to fear the people they interact with; some of them are very bad and very dangerous people, and the police often interact with them in very dangerous situations. That said, it is also clear that police officers have been socialized to be excessively fearful and/or aggressive in situations where those things are not justified. This most obviously applies to traffic stops, which—especially if they involve black, male motorists—are more fraught with tension than is justified. Slate just ran an interview with Jordan Blair Woods, a University of Arkansas law professor who is an expert on the subject of traffic stops (and the risk level therein). He proposes that enforcement of traffic laws should be taken out of the hands of armed officers entirely, and transferred to unarmed civilian agents, not unlike how parking tickets are generally handled.

Q: One of my relatives believes "the media" is conspiring to boost the amount of coverage given to "mass shooting" stories under Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden relative to the coverage under Donald Trump. I guess the idea is that with a Democratic administration, it's possible some gun control measures could be implemented, so it's valuable to manipulate the public/politicians into seeing mass shootings as a bigger threat. Setting aside whether this conspiracy theory makes any sense, I'm wondering if the premise (heightened coverage under Obama/Biden) can be debunked.

Naturally, "the media" would need to be sufficiently narrowed down—something like print publications with over X circulation plus cable/network news programs. My anecdotal read on the situation is that the vast majority of all mass shooting incidents get only a blip of coverage (outlets move on within 24 hours), unless the violence is particularly devastating (double digit deaths). But, of course, I only see a tiny slice of the whole media landscape. So I'm wondering if there is an objective, quantifiable way to answer this question, like the number of times "mass shooting(s)" appeared in headlines or was spoken by cable news talking heads during different administrations. I tried to research this, but couldn't find any good sources. I thought perhaps professional researchers like (V) & (Z) might have access to better tools and be able to come up with an answer.
K.G., Phoenix, AZ

A: This strikes us as basically implausible to study. It would be hard to choose a representative sample of media outlets. It would be hard to choose a proper list of "buzzwords" that would trigger the "counter" of mass shooting stories. And it would be hard to discriminate between different kinds of items (breaking news, follow-ups, op-eds, letters to the editor, etc.), not to mention stories that are covered in depth versus those that aren't. Are 100 stories on the Las Vegas shooting the same as single articles on 100 different shootings?

Even if one did design a study, and then invest the massive quantity of resources and time, then what? There is no reason to think that mass shootings are equally distributed by year, so an increase in coverage could just mean an increase in the number (or scope) of mass shootings. Further, as every person learns on the first day of Stats 101, correlation does not equal causation. Even if it was demonstrated that mass shootings got more attention during the Obama years (surely the Biden years are too new for any conclusions), then that doesn't prove anything. The cause could be something else, like the state of the economy, or the amount of lobbying funds spent by the NRA, or the weather.

Ultimately, your relative's conspiratorial thinking reflects ignorance of how media outlets work. Coordinating coverage of any issue in service of a political goal would be both unethical and really, really difficult. It's tough to crank out a new issue of a newspaper every single day, or a new episode of a newscast, or whatever. There's hardly time or energy to get the competition on the phone to align coverage. Further, staff members would not play along with such machinations.

If we want to understand which mass shootings get covered and which do not, it is surely more productive to look at other biases in the media that have nothing to do with politics. These incidents are so common that it's only the "man bites dog" ones that get a lot of attention. Some of the factors that play a role:

  • The number of deaths/amount of carnage
  • If it took place at a school, or possibly a hospital
  • If a notable person was involved, either as a victim or a perpetrator
  • If there is some major enigma involved (usually "why did the shooter do it?")

These things are surely more determinative than whoever the occupant of the White House happens to be at the time.

Q: I have noticed that readers occasionally submit policy ideas to you and ask for your opinion. Usually you pan their ideas for various reasons. I thought I would submit some policy ideas concerning ways to end mass shootings in the U.S. Please give me your feedback. Do you foresee any unintended consequences?

First, I suspect that every time the various news media report on mass shootings, that just plants the idea in the head of another nutcase to go out and do the same thing. So, I think the Biden administration should request that the various news media stop reporting on mass shootings for at least one year. If Biden could get the various news organizations in the print, radio and television media to cooperate, along with the various professional journalism associations (Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Club, etc.), I think it would go a long way in stopping the next mass shooting. If nothing else, it would be a good social experiment for the entire country.

Another policy idea is to not allow a person to buy a gun unless they voted in the last election. In essence, the policy would state that if you want to be a responsible gun owner, you must first be a responsible voting citizen. The database of everybody who voted in the last election already exists, so it wouldn't take much work to make the data available for purposes to this policy's enforcement. Since hardened criminals probably never vote, this policy could prevent them from buying guns. And this policy could help increase voter turnout, because more people might vote just so they would be eligible to buy a gun.
D.D.W., St. Louis, MO

A: Well, as to your first idea, that phenomenon already has a name: Mass shooting contagion. Whether it's real has been studied extensively, and the answer is: Who knows? There is no question that the number of mass shootings has gone up in recent years, and so too has the amount of media coverage. But it's not clear which is the chicken and which is the egg.

In the 1990s, there was a conscious effort to reduce coverage of celebrity suicides, and that seems to have caused a reduction in suicide rates overall. So, the hope is that a reduction in mass-shooting coverage would have a similar effect. However, the 1990s were a pretty different time, and given how balkanized today's media is, not to mention how easy it is to share information via social media, it is somewhat unlikely that mass-shooting information can really be limited in a meaningful way anymore.

As to your second idea, that would never, ever pass muster with the Supreme Court. Further, there are enough guns out there that a non-voter would not have much difficulty buying or borrowing one. For example—and we hate to break it to you—most criminals do not get their guns from legitimate retailers.

Q: Can't the United States ban the manufacture, sale and possession of ammunition? Alternatively, they could apply a massive tax to ammunition that would be used to finance a victim's fund or other alternative policy initiatives. This has no impact on the Second Amendment as far as I can tell. S.S. in St. Louis, MO

A: Our guess is that the Supreme Court would find that the right to bear arms implicitly includes the supplies needed to make those arms functional. So, outlawing ammunition would not pass constitutional muster.

As to taxing the living daylights out of bullets, we'd like to bring a little thing called Prohibition to your attention. Such a tax would probably be legal, since that power is clearly granted to Congress. However, if the cost of bullets jumped to $5,000/each, or some other sky-high figure, the effect would be to encourage thriving trades in home-manufacture of bullets (bull-shine?) and in bullet-running from Canada and Mexico. This would increase the amount of crime in the country, not to mention the number of accidents resulting from poor-quality bullets.

Q: What would be the process for the Democrats to abolish the filibuster, in total or only in one area (voting rights)? D.G., Los Angeles, CA

A: We've answered this question before, but it's important enough to be worth revisiting every once in a while. Here's how it would be done:

  1. A bill would be introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
  2. One of the Republican senators, probably Ted Cruz (R-TX) or Josh Hawley (R-MO), would announce a filibuster
  3. A Democratic member would ask for a ruling that the filibuster was out of order
  4. The chamber would hold a vote on the point of order
  5. It would take only a majority (with VP Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote) to carry the point of order
  6. In the Senate, precedents are considered binding, and so the point of order (say, "voting rights bills cannot be filibustered") would become a new procedural rule for the Senate

Q: I still don't understand why the filibuster is a full stop to anything being passed in the Senate. Can't the filibuster be allowed to play out its time, and then a full Senate vote be taken after the time has run out? It seems like the threat of the filibuster is enough to stop everything without even invoking a real filibuster. What have I missed in the past six months of this discussion? H.C., Santa Cruz, CA

A: Because since the rules were changed in the 1970s, there is nothing that "runs out the clock" on a filibuster except for the filibustering senator to change their mind, or for cloture to be invoked by a vote of 60 senators. Failing those two things, a senator can declare a filibuster, and the bill is halted until the end of the current term, even if that is a year or more in the future. Nothing is required beyond that declaration.

This is why a return to the Jimmy Stewart-style talking filibuster would be significant, because then the filibuster would impose an actual burden on the senator or senators trying to pull it off. At very least, depending on how the rules were set up, they would have to be present in the Senate chamber and talk, talk, talk. At worst, they would have to do that without the benefit of food, water, or bathroom breaks. Whatever the rules might be, a talking filibuster might plausibly be extended to a day, or a week, or even a month. But a yearlong filibuster would be extremely difficult and unlikely.

If the phonebook-reading filibuster is reintroduced, the rule will have to prevent tag-team phonebook reading, with senators just taking turns. One way would be to split debate into the initial phase (current rules) and the final phase, with a majority vote needed to enter the final phase. During the final phase each senator would get only one turn, for however long as he or she could manage with no food, no drinks, and no bathroom breaks.

Q: I'm just not understanding the portions of the infrastructure plan called SALT. It sounds to me like it's part of how it's all going to be paid for, but I'm not sure. Could you please explain it? J.E., Boone, NC

A: SALT is not a part of the infrastructure plan, per se. SALT refers to the state and local tax deduction cap allowed on federal income taxes. It used to be that a person could deduct every cent of state and local taxes on their federal return. After the Republicans passed the 2017 tax bill, the SALT deduction was capped at $10,000 (or $5,000/each for married individuals filing separately). This change basically affects three groups of people (with some significant overlap between groups): (1) The well-to-do, (2) owners of expensive residences, and (3) residents of states with substantial income taxes. On a national level, this mostly means very wealthy people. However, there are some states, mostly blue states with high property values and high property taxes, like New Jersey and New York, where the effects are felt more broadly.

As part of the infrastructure bill, the Biden administration plans to revisit the 2017 tax bill, particularly the sections about corporate taxes. This being the case, some Democratic members of Congress—mostly those from New York and New Jersey—would very much like to revisit the SALT cap, too. Other Democrats feel that would mostly be a giveaway to very rich people (true), and that it would blow a hole in the math of paying for the bill (also true). This is not going to be easy to resolve, though it's worth noting that the cap is set to expire in 2025 anyhow, so that might help in reaching a compromise (for example, keeping it, but only until 2023).

Q: Yesterday, you had an item about a D.C. statehood bill being passed by the House. When I want to give myself a headache, I listen to the local conservative radio station for their "insight." The host labeled it as a power grab but proposed a solution to the problem the Democrats are trying to solve. In his view, if the problem is the residents need to be represented, then give part of D.C. back to Maryland. Is this viable? Is it similar to what happened in 1844 when Virginia reclaimed part of D.C.? K.V., Hartland, WI

A: Yes, retrocession is viable, at least legally. Politically, not so much.

Washington, D.C. has a population of about 700,000 people, and is about 49% Black. If they are granted statehood, then they would get to pick two brand-new Senators and one brand-new representative, all three of whom would probably be Black. That would instantly increase the number of Black senators the U.S. has ever had by nearly 20% (from 11 to 13).

If the city is merged into Maryland, then it would be a state of 6.75 million people that would be about 32% black. The 700,000 new Marylanders would have a minority voice (and we mean that in multiple ways) in the selection of two senators who are already incumbent (and are both white), and possibly one new representative.

You can certainly see how the residents of D.C. would see the Maryland option as a raw deal. And if they were just 700,000 randomly selected people, maybe that would be too bad for them. But given this country's history of slavery, racism, and Black disenfranchisement, it would be a real problem to yank the rug out from under the residents of D.C. (to say nothing of denying the possibility of naming the state after an iconic Black American).

Q: If D.C. is granted statehood, will Washington, the city, cease to exist?

As a fan of touring state capitol buildings, I'm also curious to know if there is already a pre-existing building that would become the new state capitol building, or if a new one would be constructed. Also, I presume they'll need a Governor's mansion as well, and maybe even an entire capitol complex as so many other states have, perhaps with a new state museum?

As for the possible precedent the creation of this new city-state could herald, is it possible this could usher in a new wave of applications for statehood from other mega-cities? In particular, I could see Chicago warming up to the idea of being its own state—and that could even find support among Republicans who might relish the creation of an ultra-blue state of Chicago if it made for a slightly smaller but much more reliably red state of Illinois.
S.W., Raleigh, NC

A: The federal capital of Washington will not cease to exist, of course, it will just get a bunch smaller. As to the organization of the new state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, that is still up in the air. It's true that most states use the state-county-city model, but not all do. Rhode Island and Connecticut, both of them relatively small states, do not use counties as a political division—they have only state and municipal governments. It's not impossible that the newly created D.C. could eschew an additional level, and have only a state-level government.

As to facilities, D.C. currently uses the John A. Wilson Building for administrative offices, including the mayor's office and the city council chamber. Presumably, that would become the capitol building for the Douglass Commonwealth. Although the possibility of an official residence for the mayor has been bandied about, nothing has come of it, so there's no obvious governor's residence ready to go. That said, there are four existing states that have no official governor's residence (Arizona, Idaho, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island), so maybe one is not necessary.

There is zero chance that Congress will agree to allow other large or medium-sized cities to spin off and become city-states. It would be chaos, and without any clear justification. Washington, D.C. has the (very reasonable) complaint that they are not fully represented in the government because they cannot send voting members to Congress. Chicago and other cities do not have that problem.

Q: Much has been said of how the Democrats could gain an advantage in the Senate by way of the long overdue admissions of Washington D.C. and possibly Puerto Rico as states.

Given that the last few years have proven that nothing is off the table these days, what would be the chances that deep red states might engage in counter-statehood movements. For example: Could Alabama decide that it is going to divide itself into two states the next time Republicans control the Senate? You could reasonably carve Texas into three or four good sized, properly gerrymandered states.

I understand this is far-fetched, but this is 2021 we're talking about. How possible is it?
J.T. in Greensboro, NC

A: Not very, for the reasons outlined in the previous answer. There's no justification for it, and it would create political, economic, and social chaos. You also underestimate, we think, the importance of state identity to many folks. Texans are proud of being Texans and not North Texans or East Texans.

Q: My question is: with the media highlighting how Donald Trump won the majority of counties over Joe Biden in 2020, what was the most populous city that Trump won? And how many of the most populous cities (say, Top 25 or so) did Trump win? B.M., Dublin, CA

A: Trump came within a point of winning the Top 10 cities of Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix. However, the largest city he actually did win was #12 Jacksonville. The only other Top 25 city he won was #25 Oklahoma City, though he came close in #23 Nashville.

Q: It should be evident by now that Donald Trump presided over a period of increased right-wing violence. In the first year of his presidency, there was a violent, armed protest in Charlottesville, VA, that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer as well as numerous injuries. In October 2018 there was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, that resulted in 11 deaths and multiple injuries. That same fall, a Florida man sent 16 packages containing pipe bombs to Democratic politicians and other critics of Donald Trump. In 2019, a man drove 600 miles with a semi-automatic rifle to a Walmart in El Paso, TX, where he killed 23 Latinos and injured 23 others. And we all know about the recent capitol insurrection in January intending to stop the certification of Joe Biden's electoral college victory.

My question is: Do you believe Donald Trump caused the increased violence, or was his election a symptom of the problem of increasing right-wing extremism? I lean towards the latter explanation because right-wing extremism is nothing new and there seems to be a strain of right-wing populism growing in Western countries that favors aggressive solutions to political disputes.
R.M.S., Lebanon, CT

A: The Washington Post charted all of the domestic terrorism incidents from 1994-present, coding them based on the politics of the perpetrator:

There were about 50 terrorist 
acts a year in the Clinton and Bush years, and about 30 a year in the Obama years, but there have been about 100 a year since
Trump came along

As you can see, the 6 years since Trump commenced his political career gave us all five of the most violent years since 1994, with right-wing terrorism predominant. His actual presidency gave us all of the top three most violent years.

In view of these numbers, it is clear to us that substantial blame attaches to the 45th president. He encouraged these incidents with his words, but also by giving the impression that such actions would not be punished.

Q: You wrote: "[Paul] Manafort might have [talked to the authorities] when the legal pressure was on, but he's now been pardoned, so his lips are presumably sealed."

I thought that a pardon required truthfulness when questioned by authorities or grand juries. Wouldn't this allow for resolution of the remaining questions regarding the former president's complicity?
A.B., Chesapeake, VA

A: It is true that Manafort can no longer invoke the Fifth Amendment (with only a few exceptions). However, this is a man who has no issue with lying, and who was willing to go to prison to protect Trump. With no leverage left to use against him, we think it improbable that he can be persuaded to sing like a canary.

Q: George W. Bush says that it was Harry Reid that put the kibosh on his immigration bill, not fellow Republicans. What's the truth? B.B., Chipley, FL

A: Either Bush is lying, he doesn't understand how Congress works, or his memory is failing him. You can decide which you think it is.

Perhaps the 43rd president isn't familiar with this whole new-fangled Internet thing that the kiddies are using these days. If he was, he would know that it's very easy to look up the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, and to learn that it was unpopular with Republicans (who didn't like the idea of a path to citizenship) and with Democrats (who thought the path was too onerous, and threatened to break up families). You can also look up the actual legislative history of the bill, S. 1348, and learn that its sole sponsor in the Senate was...Harry Reid, who also brought it up for a vote. You can even learn that the bill was filibustered by Republicans, and that in Reid's final attempt to invoke cloture, 34 Democrats voted "yea," and all the Republicans (joined by 13 Democrats and Bernie Sanders) voted "nay," effectively killing the measure (there were also 3 Democrats and 1 Republican who did not cast votes).

It is true that Reid voted against the final motion to invoke cloture, which means he technically helped kill the bill. However, it's not like he did it singlehandedly; he had many helpers. Further, he only voted "nay" so as to be in a position to offer a motion to reconsider, since members on the losing side of a motion cannot offer such a motion. Put another way, between sponsoring the bill, bringing it to a vote, and then executing a little bit of parliamentary trickery, Reid literally did everything he could to pass the bill. That's rather different from what Bush is claiming.

Q: I have greatly enjoyed the "Whither the Republicans?" series. This is a unique and quite objective analysis that few analysts or commentators seem able to provide these days. Your approaches to put numbers and facts to work instead of emotion is always greatly admired.

My question is simple: In your opinion, how "lost" are Republicans right now, in a historical sense? Meaning, the Party that lost the White House or chamber(s) of Congress always has a need to re-assess direction and strategy. How steep is the hill now for the GOP?
G.R., Basel, Switzerland

A: Generally speaking, when a party's coalition reaches the point of non-viability, it takes a crushing defeat to cause them to re-assess and re-orient. Part of the reason the Democrats remained the minority party for as long as they did (1860s-1920s) was because the presidential elections of that time were almost always close, and they sometimes managed to win control of one (or both) chambers of Congress. That was enough to persuade them that the promised land was just around the corner, and that they should stay the course.

The Republicans appear to be in a similar situation. The systemic factors that are keeping them competitive are also keeping them from having to undergo a reckoning. There has been no Smith 1928 (huge Democratic loss) or Goldwater 1964 (huge Republican loss) to awaken the Party to the possible need for a course correction. Although Trump got thrashed pretty badly in the popular vote in 2020, the closeness of Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin allows rational Republicans to persuade themselves that he nearly won. And the non-rational Republicans have persuaded themselves that he actually did win, and that he was victimized by massive fraud. So, they are not even going to start thinking critically about a new direction for at least one more cycle, and probably far more than that.

Point is, our guess is that the GOP is pretty badly lost, and their wanderings in the desert are not coming to an end anytime soon.

Q: I raised an eyebrow at your assertion that Michele Bachmann was a serious candidate for the White House in 2012. What makes someone a serious candidate as opposed to a kooky, clownish candidate? Is a candidate automatically a serious candidate simply by virtue that they may have received at one time X% of support in some polls? R.C., Des Moines, IA

A: The original plan was to nuance that sentence a little more. However, that was the last item of the night, and (Z) was feeling poorly, so didn't have the energy to work out the wording. Quite a few folks sent in comments/questions about Bachmann, a few others about Harold Stassen.

Bachmann won the CPAC straw poll that year and also finished sixth in the Iowa caucuses. There are other candidates with similar profiles, but from different years, who have been treated as serious candidates (Ben Carson or Rand Paul on the Republican side, for example; Wesley Clark or Dick Gephardt on the Democratic side). Of course, "serious candidate" and "candidate who might win" are not the same thing.

As to Stassen, he became a joke candidate over time, but he was absolutely a serious candidate in 1952, when the Republican field was wide open, and was a plausible dark horse in 1944 and 1948.

Truth be told, (Z)'s biggest regret in not having time to work a bit more on that paragraph was that he was unable to work in Minnesota's rich history of leftist politics, including the fact that four-time Communist Party USA presidential candidate Gus Hall was a native Minnesotan.

Q: J.B. in Hutto analogized the modern United States to the Roman republic in its decline phase. This brought to mind a common right-wing YouTube trope, most famously propounded by Stefan Molyneux, in which Western culture is lionized and immigration, depravity, and degeneracy are blamed. I don't mean to associate J.B. with Molyneux or right-wing YouTube. As far as I can tell, J.B.'s points are entirely different from what that crowd talks about. But they do share that one underlying idea: that the decline of Rome might have something to teach us about modern America. It seems to me that the ancient world is so different from the modern world that any comparison is as likely to mislead as to illuminate.

What does the resident historian think?

(Besides: Rome never had a neighbor as dangerous as Canada.)
C.C. in Hancock, NH

A: Let us preface this by noting that it's been a long time since (Z) served as TA for the late, great Mortimer Chambers, and so his Roman history is a little rusty.

That said, people have been comparing the U.S. to Rome in its decline phase for at least 150 years. Karl Marx did it. Thorstein Veblen did it. John Kenneth Galbraith did it. The most recent notable entry in this body of literature is Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America by Cullen Murphy. And if you don't want to buy and read a whole book, Murphy just published an op-ed, updated to include the Capitol insurrection, in The Atlantic last month.

J.B.'s letter was interesting and enjoyable, which is why we printed it, but (Z) thinks you're right that such comparisons are not all that illuminating. Back when he was working for Dr. Chambers, the organizing theme of the class (Western Civilizations, 5000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.) was that every civilization faces the same basic set of challenges, and it's interesting to see how they tried to meet those challenges. There are a great many governments that have dealt with the things that Rome faced 2,000 years ago and that America faces today—corruption, economic upheaval, class tensions, border security, etc. Some of those governments collapsed, and some of them did not. It may also be worth noting that even after the Roman republic fell, the Western empire lasted another 500 years and the Eastern empire lasted another 1,500.

As to Canada, no doubt. Certainly, we'd rather face a bunch of spear-carrying Vandals than a bunch of poutine-carrying Nades.

Q: Going back to 1944, the Democratic ticket has included either a current or former U.S. Senator as the VP nominee 18 out of 20 times (exceptions Geraldine Ferraro and Sargent Shriver). Every Democratic nominee who was elected President had chosen a sitting Democratic U.S. Senator. Both the McGovern-Shriver and Mondale-Ferraro tickets were blown out by the GOP. As likely we'll know who Joe Biden will pick by August 17, do you see that this historical pattern might have relevance to the 2020 results? M.F., Burke, VA

A: This message arrived in our inbox today, even though it was clearly sent many months ago. To provide you with an answer, we climbed into our time machine, and consulted with the August 2020 versions of ourselves. The good news for us is that no universe-ending paradoxes ensued. The bad news is that our time machine is only good for trips between the past and the present; no future. If we could only look forward a few years, we'd be the greatest political prognosticators in the land.

Anyhow, our August 2020 counterparts said:

Yes, a sitting Senator is a likely pick for Biden. Probably someone younger than he by at least 20 years. Has to be a woman, because he promised. And he could use a person of color, ideally from a large state.

Knowing that the eventual pick was Kamala Harris, we congratulate ourselves on our insight.

In all seriousness, though, it's not a surprise that 90% of the time (or 95%, if you consider that Sarge Shriver was a replacement for Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri), the VP candidate is a senator. If the president wants a liaison to the Hill/a partner in governance, a senator can do that. If the president is hoping to drag a state into their electoral column, well, senators by definition have won statewide election in their home states. By contrast, a representative checks the first box (Hill experience) but not the second (statewide victory), while a governor checks the second but not necessarily the first.

Q: I noticed that the Lincoln campaign poster says "Free homes," but I haven't been able to find references to this on the internet. It sounds surprisingly socialist for the Republican Party. Could you please enlighten us? K.G. in Seattle, WA

A: Note that the full slogan is "Free homes, free speech, free territory." That, in turn, is a variant on the Party's 1856 slogan, in support of candidate John C. Frémont: "Free soil, free labor, free men, Frémont."

The GOP intended the word "free" to be understood in two ways. The first meaning was "without slavery"; in 1860 the Party was running on a platform of homes without slavery, speech without limitation by the "slave power" (which was famous for censorship, destroying mail, burning anti-slavery newspapers, etc.), and territories/states without slavery.

The second meaning was "free of charge." The Republicans did not propose to build an actual house for people, but they did propose to grant free homesteads (pieces of land, usually 160 acres in size). The person did have to live on the land, and did have to pay a small registration fee, but that was it. The Lincoln administration made good on that promise with the Homestead Act of 1862. That, and subsequent homestead acts, ultimately gave 160 million acres of land to over 1.5 million homesteaders. And yes, it was pretty socialist, particularly given that the intended beneficiaries were poor people.

Q: You wrote that Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln's first VP, "does not get credit for any famous law, or any important treaty, or for a clever quip about the uselessness of the vice presidency, or having a salad or a dessert named after him, or anything like that." I know about Beef Wellington, Pavlova, Peaches Melba and Melba toast—all named for people who were not American politicians. What salads and desserts (or other food items) have been named for American political figures? M.G., Boulder, CO

Q: OK, presuming you had someone in mind, which political figures had a salad or dessert named after them? Or maybe there should be a contest to name some! S.G., Durham, NC

A: We were thinking primarily of dishes named after foreign political leaders, who tend to receive this honor more frequently than Americans do. That includes the Alexandertorte (Tsar Alexander), Earl Grey tea (British PM Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey), Trout Joan of Arc, Kung Pao chicken (Chinese diplomat Ding Baozhen), Pizza Margherita (Queen Margherita of Savoy), Veal Oscar (King Oscar II of Sweden), and the sandwich (British First Lord of the Admiralty John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich).

That said, there are some foods named for American political figures, most of them desserts. That includes the Big-Hearted Al Candy Bar (Al Smith), Peach pudding à la Cleveland, Apricots with rice à la Jefferson, Mamie Eisenhower fudge, Martha Washington's Cake, and George Washington's Cake (which is actually a pie). The Baby Ruth is also a dessert, and was allegedly named for Cleveland's daughter Ruth, but that was almost certainly a lie told so the manufacturer didn't have to pay royalties to baseball star Babe Ruth. If all of these sweets are too much for you, then you can opt instead for an Endicott Pear, named for former Massachusetts governor John Endicott.

If anyone has suggestions for potential desserts, salads, or other dishes that could be named for politicians, we'll print some either tomorrow or next week. For example, Caviar à la Barack: It's produced domestically, but Republicans swear it tastes imported.

Q: Would you tell us more about Benjamin Harrison's cabinet, please? The quote you mentioned from him, that his campaign managers "had sold out every place to pay the election expenses" seems a bit at odds with Wikipedia's note that "Harrison acted quite independently in selecting his cabinet, much to the Republican bosses' dismay." W.H., San Jose, CA

A: For someone who managed to become president, Harrison was shockingly naive about the realities of politics, leaving such matters to his campaign managers. After winning the election of 1888, Harrison declared "Providence has given us this victory!" His lead manager, Sen. Matt Quay of Pennsylvania, remarked later: "Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it. He has no idea how many men were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him president."

Anyhow, political deals are not written down and are not legally enforceable, of course. They depend on the candidate deciding it's in his best interest to abide by them. So, deals were made by Hanna (and others) for the seats in Harrison's cabinet, and they assumed the candidate would go along, since that's how things were done back then. Harrison—who again, was kind of naive—decided that he was not interested in playing by those rules, and so named his own cabinet, to the shock and dismay of his managers and the anger of much of his party. The price was that many key Republicans did not rally around Harrison in 1892, and he lost his reelection bid decisively.

Q: Today, you wrote, "the Republican Party used to be, arguably, even more evidence-based than the Democratic Party." Could you please give some examples of this? What time period were you referring to?

I sometimes wonder whether, as a lifelong Democrat and science-and-evidence-minded person, I would have been a (liberal) Republican at some other point in history. Is there a way to figure that out based on how the parties' positions have evolved over time?
E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: We were mostly thinking the early 20th century, as both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were very interested in the latest scientific studies, and in evidence-based policymaking, while it was Democratic politicians who brought the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 (and three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan who served as prosecuting attorney).

Q: Since there has been discussion about boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, I was curious about the ultimate political fallout of Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Did the decision help or hurt him politically? Or did it have no effect at all? R.N., Baltimore, MD

A: Those Olympics were held from July 19 though August 3 of that year. In polling of the presidential race, Carter dipped a little bit in early August, but was actually pulling higher numbers in September than he was in July before the Olympics (39% vs. 32%). In terms of his approval rating, he was at 32% right before the Olympics, 32% right after, and up to 37% by mid-September. So if the boycott damaged him, we're not seeing any evidence of it.

Q: You did the 10 best. So now, who are the 10 worst immigrants in U.S. history, and why? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: We will do our best, but it's hard to fully grasp the negative impact of some kinds of people, either because they kept things hidden, or because those impacts were somewhat amorphous and were widely dispersed. We're also going to incorporate folks from different fields of endeavor, so as to cover different sorts of damage. Country of origin is in parentheses.

  1. Ayn Rand (Russia): We wanted at least one person from the arts on the list, and Rand is the one. It's not too easy to do harm with music or literature, but Rand's work has encouraged selfish, unsocial behavior on the part of many adherents, with Ron and Rand Paul being among the most notable examples. The writer and performer John Rogers once observed: "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

  2. Micajah and Wiley Harpe (Scotland): The Harpe Brothers were the most prolific serial killers of the 18th century, with between 39 and 50 victims.

  3. Felipe Espinosa (Mexico): Espinosa was the most prolific serial killer of the 19th century, with 32 victims, all of them killed in the summer of 1863.

  4. Charles Ponzi (Italy): The scammer who gave scams (well, some of them) their name. Ponzi's schemes deprived "investors" of more than $20 million ($250 million in modern dollars).

  5. Fung Jing Toy (China): The king of Chinatown's kingpins in late 19th-century San Francisco, he killed at least 50 people himself, ordered the deaths of countless others, and engaged in smuggling, drug dealing, prostitution, and extortion.

  6. Sirhan Sirhan (Mandatory Palestine, now Israel): The assassin of Robert F. Kennedy. It is impossible to know how things would have been different if RFK lived, but they probably would have been better.

  7. Albert Anastasia (Italy): An utterly cold-blooded killer and long time Mafia hit man, he founded and led the infamous Murder, Inc.

  8. Edward Teller (Austria-Hungary, now Hungary): A lousy colleague who stepped on everyone's toes and tossed J. Robert Oppenheimer under the bus, he bears much responsibility for the expansion and increased lethality of America's nuclear arsenal.

  9. Arthur Rudolph (Germany): There were a number of prominent Nazi scientists who came to the U.S. after World War II and helped launch America's rocketry program (which became NASA). Rudolph may have been the most reprehensible, however, as he took advantage of forced labor from concentration camps while he was part of the German war machine. Eventually, he was forced to leave the United States.

  10. Meyer Lansky (Russia): This whole list could plausibly be populated with mafiosi, though we limited ourselves to one example of muscle (Anastasia) and one leader (Lansky). We choose Lansky, in particular, because of his long career (nearly 60 years), as well as the fact that he was closely connected to the Italian, Irish, and Jewish mobs.

If you think we missed one, let us know.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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