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      •  The Republicans' Line Holds on 1/6 Commission
      •  Saturday Q&A

The Republicans' Line Holds on 1/6 Commission

The first thing that the Senate agreed to do on Friday was postpone debate (and the final vote) on the $250-billion-to-rein-in-China bill. The second thing they agreed to do was vote on whether to invoke cloture on the 1/6 Commission bill that had already been passed by the House. The cloture vote failed, 54-35, meaning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was successful in uniting (enough of) his conference in opposition to the bill. This effectively means that the measure is dead.

The 54 "yea" votes included six Republicans. Here are the senators who crossed the aisle:

  • Mitt Romney (UT)
  • Susan Collins (ME)
  • Bill Cassidy (LA)
  • Rob Portman (OH)
  • Lisa Murkowski (AK)
  • Ben Sasse (NE)

And here are the 11 senators who did not cast a vote:

  • Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)
  • Roy Blunt (R-MO)
  • Mike Braun (R-IN)
  • Richard Burr (R-NC)
  • Jim Inhofe (R-OK)
  • Patty Murray (D-WA)
  • Mike Rounds (R-SD)
  • James Risch (R-ID)
  • Richard Shelby (R-AL)
  • Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)
  • Pat Toomey (R-PA)

Presumably, some of these folks had already departed Washington for the Memorial Day holiday. It's hard to see why Patty Murray, for example, would not cast a vote if she had been present. Others may have been trying to avoid taking sides, for fear that their votes would be held over their heads. Kyrsten Sinema, who seems to really be trying to establish her centrist bona fides, is a candidate for this category.

Technically, the bill could still come back to life. Because the filibuster remains in effect, what is happening right now is, in effect, endless debate on the bill. The Democrats could take another shot at cloture, but it is improbable that there would be three more defections from the Republican side. If they were going to cross the aisle, the time to do it was Friday.

Also not helping matters is that things got rather tense before and during the voting process. Shortly before the roll call took place, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) reached agreement on concessions that Susan Collins required in order to secure her vote. She apparently believed that the changes might also attract the additional Republican votes needed. However, when Schumer presented the bill for a vote, he called out the Republican conference, declaring "What are you afraid of? The truth?" And he failed to emphasize the changes that he and Collins had just agreed upon. The Maine Senator felt that, in that moment, the Majority Leader effectively destroyed any chance the bill had of passing. And she and Schumer argued about it, rather angrily, as the vote was getting underway. She's probably right that Schumer's behavior was impolitic, but we find it hard to believe that there were four GOP "yeas" available that disappeared into the ether, just like that.

In any event, this vote—including the last-minute Schumer-Collins dustup—is not going to help the already poisonous atmosphere in the Senate. The Republicans have persuaded themselves that the Democrats' version of the 1/6 commission was unfair and unreasonable, and was crafted in service of partisan goals. The Democrats have persuaded themselves that the Republicans care more about winning elections and kowtowing to Donald Trump than about the health and viability of the democracy. Some observers are saying that Friday's wounds will take a long, long time to heal—months, or maybe even years. On the other hand, it's more fuel for the "get rid of the filibuster" fire.

Already, many Democrats are ready to move on to Plan B, which is the formation of a select committee. A select committee has the same powers as a standing committee, or as the 1/6 commission would have had, including the ability to collect evidence and to compel testimony. A select committee also has the obvious benefit, in this case, of needing approval by, and being drawn from, only one chamber. So, the House will be able to make it happen, without having to worry about Mitch McConnell and his band of merry men and women.

Select committees were actually the primary way Congress organized itself in the early days of the republic, before both houses decided it makes more sense to conduct most business through standing committees. Still, select committees (also called special committees) continue to be used for specific tasks that don't really fall under the mandate of the standing committees. There have been a number of notable, very important, select committees in the last century, including the Truman Committee (looked into corruption and waste during World War II), the Watergate Committee, and the Iran-Contra Committee. That said, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Benghazi Committee were also select committees, so it doesn't always work out well.

As Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) puts together a select committee on 1/6, she'll have two very big challenges. The first is that a select committee is at serious risk of being seen as a partisan exercise. Pelosi will address that, as best she can, by adding Republican representation. However, she can either exert influence over which Republicans are chosen, which will push things in the "partisan Democratic exercise" direction, or she can be hands-off and risk that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) picks people like Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), turning the thing into a circus.

The other challenge is time. For both partisan and pragmatic purposes, the Democrats don't want to drag this out too long, and would like to wrap things up by the start of next year. However, that is a very short period of time for something as significant as this. Further, it is sometimes necessary—in order to get full and frank testimony—to go to a court and to secure immunity for some witnesses. That, of course, takes time.

The Republicans also have some things to worry about, too. Their goal—with even some members of the GOP conference observing as much—was to avoid the airing of a bunch of unpleasant GOP laundry. But that laundry, or at least a lot of it, is still going to be aired by the select committee. Meanwhile, Republicans' priorities may come up a time or two during election season. Gladys Sicknick and Sandra Garza, the mother and partner of fallen Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, are disgusted with the GOP, and say that the Republican senators they talked to had no interest in getting to the bottom of things, and were acting in bad faith. Think those two might show up in a Democratic campaign ad or two next year? Further, as reader J.H. in Lompoc, CA, pointed out to us, the vote just so happened to take place on the weekend when the U.S. honors its war dead. One can imagine a few veterans showing up in some of those campaign ads, too. Sicknick, incidentally, was himself a veteran and is now interred at Arlington.

Anyhow, it would appear that the die is cast, and that the path forward is set. Congress is taking a week off, and presumably creating a select commission will be at the top of Pelosi's to-do list as soon as they return. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

We're going to begin with—surprise!—questions about the 1/6 commission.

Q: Why do you think Chuck Schumer allowed the filibuster to prevail, and did not vote against the bill so he can bring it back at a later time? D.G., Los Angeles, CA

A: As to the latter question, that maneuver was not necessary here, as this was not the final vote. So, as we note above, the legislation is technically still alive, it's just stuck in "infinite debate" purgatory.

As to Schumer's strategy here, only he knows for sure. However, he probably believes, with some reason, that the circumstances for holding a vote were never going to get better than they were yesterday. If he let the senators cool their jets for a week while on recess, Republican crossovers and/or some Democrats might have gotten cold feet. Further, if there's to be a select commission anyhow, better for that to get underway ASAP. And finally, there's the Memorial Day symbolism we discuss above.

Q: I read that the cloture vote on the 1/6 commission failed by a 54-35 vote. Shouldn't that have been considered successful since 60% of those voting voted in favor? A.M., Brookhaven, PA

Q: I just read in a news article that some senators were not present for the vote on the 1/6 Commission. Would that not mean that a lower number of Yeas would be needed? J.K from Tübingen, Germany

A: Senate Rule XXII, which you can read here if you wish, used to call for "two-thirds of Senators present" to invoke cloture. So, if there were only 30 senators voting, 20 votes was enough to end debate and force a final vote. However, in an attempt to make it harder to maintain a filibuster, the rule was changed to "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn." Under the old rule, it generally took 66-67 senators to kill a filibuster, since usually most or all were present. Under the new rule, it only takes 60, but thanks to the change from "Senators present" to "Senators duly chosen and sworn" it's a hard 60 (unless a few senators haven't yet been sworn in, as was the case in January of this year before the Georgia special elections). If 11 senators are not present or do not vote, as was the case yesterday, the number doesn't change. And if 41 senators happen to be absent, then it is literally not possible to end a filibuster.

Q: It seems to me that Democrats could have made an effort to ram the 1/6 Commission through by declaring the filibuster does not apply on votes for creating a commission to investigate crimes against Congress, or crimes that occur inside the Capitol building, or even crimes in general. Eliminating the filibuster in that one isolated way likely would not come back to bite Democrats in the future. Do you think Democrats feel that the political benefit of Republicans voting against the bill outweighs the benefit of what an actual committee might find? Especially considering the other investigations of 1/6 that are ongoing? M.M., Newbury Park, CA

A: There is no way to know for sure, but our guess is that if Democrats had their druthers, the 1/6 commission would have been approved by the Senate yesterday.

It is true that a narrow exception to the filibuster could have been created, assuming the whole Democratic caucus got on board. But recall that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is opposed to creating exceptions like this. What he likely suspects, probably correctly, is that once this trick is used once, it will be used again and again, so that the filibuster dies by a thousand cuts. If he's going to vote to allow exceptions, he might as well vote to kill it completely.

Now, you might observe that there are already exceptions. True enough, but those things largely have to do with the basic functioning of the federal government. The government needs to have a budget in place. It needs to have judges holding court. So, you can make an argument that those things should not be subject to the partisan whims of a small minority. However, the government does not need a 1/6 commission to keep functioning (at least, not on a daily basis). So, creating an exception here would definitely cross a line that has not yet been crossed.

Also, it is worth noting that both Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are exasperated with the Republicans for voting against the commission. They even issued a joint statement saying that. From Schumer's point of view, getting those two really angry with the Republicans is enormously valuable. He wants them to think: "The Republicans are impossible. We can't deal with them. Bipartisanship is deader than the dodo." Killing the commission is a good start. If the Republicans also filibuster the infrastructure bill, which Manchin in particular supports, that could be the straw that breaks the camel's back and gets both of them to agree to filibuster reform. So Schumer may well understand exactly what he is doing here and why.

Q: Back in February, Al Franken and Norm Ornstein wrote an opinion piece for The StarTribune in Minneapolis explaining their idea on how to change the filibuster from the blunt object it is now into a usable and meaningful part of governing. In short, when the minority filibusters a bill, they think the majority leader should have the option to call for a vote to end debate any time the Senate is in session, even the early morning hours. This would be tough for everyone involved, but especially hard on the older members and thus, less willing to filibuster just to obstruct.

I haven't heard any discussion about this type of change but, these are two pretty smart guys. Are they on to something or are there some flaws that I don't see?
F.H., St. Paul, MN

A: This is not a new idea; it's just a different way of making the filibuster more onerous. The basic idea is that, right now, it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. The notion being advanced by Franken and Ornstein is that, instead, it should take 41 votes to keep a filibuster going. In other words, the burden shifts from the filibustered to the filibusterers.

We would not say there are "flaws," per se, but there are two flies in the ointment. The first is that this would basically gut the filibuster to the point of eliminating it. The Jimmy Stewart-style talking filibuster by and large requires one senator to burn the midnight oil. This would require 41 of them to do so. It would be extremely easy for one member of the majority to hang out in the Senate chamber until 5:00 a.m., waiting for the filibusterers to start to drop. Indeed, if there were only 41 of them, they literally couldn't sleep, go to the bathroom, get food, or anything else, for fear of falling short of the threshold.

The other fly in the ointment is that this would almost certainly require a vote to change Senate rules, which in turn requires a minimum of two-thirds of the sitting senators to agree. That is not going to happen.

Q: Just read an article in The New Republic that discusses an idea to change the filibuster rule from "60 senators" to "senators representing a majority of the population."

I haven't seen this mentioned before, but it seems a good angle for the Democrats to override GOP minority resistance yet not be shooting themselves in the foot when out of power.
G.O., New York, NY

A: This is also an idea that's been bouncing around for decades. And you know how we said the change discussed in the previous answer would never happen? Well this one, while it may sound good, is never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to happen.

First of all, Mitch McConnell may be many things, but he's not stupid. Since 1990, the Democratic senators have represented a majority of the population in 15 of 16 terms (right now, they represent 56.5%). There is no way the Minority Leader is going to allow the Democrats to set up a situation where they have a permanent filibuster available to them, and the Republicans have none.

Further, this change would entail a fairly large number of senators giving up power to a fairly small number of senators. Even if he knew full well that the change would benefit the Democrats, do you think Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would go for a setup that takes away some of his power while giving more power to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)? Probably not. And there is no way in a million years that, say, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), or any of 40 other Republican senators, would go for a setup that takes away some of their power while giving more power to Chuck Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

Q: You wrote: "When [Donald] Trump was on Twitter, most tweets were retweeted hundreds of thousands of times. And a week's worth got millions of engagements."

Is there any way to know how many of those engagements were organic, as opposed to having been purchased? (I hear you can buy 100,000 Twitter followers from Moldova for chump change. Not that Trump pays his bills, but...)
R.H., Santa Ana, CA

A: Note that you are speaking of slightly different commodities. What is for sale, generally speaking, is followers. In other words, for a relatively small amount of money, you can be someone with 1 million "followers" or 2 million or 10 million. It is estimated that about 55% of Trump's followers were phony, whether purchased by him, or set up by others. Almost all prominent accounts have some sizable percentage of phony followers, but Trump's percentage was unusually high (for comparison purposes, 40% of Barack Obama's followers are fake, as are 44% of Hillary Clinton's followers, and 43% of Joe Biden's).

Phony followers do not necessarily buy you phony engagement, however. What does get you phony engagement is bots. It is easy enough to set up a bot to automatically like every tweet. And if you have 10,000 of them, then every tweet is guaranteed 10,000 likes. It is not known if people working for Trump set up a bunch of bots, but it would hardly be surprising if they did. And there were certainly outsiders who had all sorts of bots interacting with Trump's accounts, including the Russians. Exactly what percentage of engagement was fake, or automated, is not really knowable, however. The folks who have the key information needed, namely Twitter, have very little interest in the world knowing how much of the platform's activity is not for real.

Q: George P. Bush is the latest GOP politician to "kiss the ring." If a Trump endorsement can carry the primary in a red state, practically, Trump can name the winner of the election. Should I be worried? B.C., Walpole, ME

A: We wouldn't be. Some states, and some congressional districts, are de facto one-party. And there is a long history of kingmakers in one-party states/districts in American history, among them Leland Stanford (California), Huey Long (Louisiana), Jim Pendergast (Missouri), Richard J. Daley (Illinois), and E.H. Crump (Tennessee). Trump can tip the scales when there are two Trumpy candidates running in a red district, but his endorsement is no guarantee to save a Trumpy candidate who is running against a non-Trumpy candidate. And he's shown virtually no ability to influence close races in purple (or blue) states/districts.

Q: You have written quite a bit about how few Republicans believe in the legitimacy of Joe Biden's election. Aren't the numbers pretty similar to the number of Democrats who did not believe in the legitimacy of Trump's election—in that case, due to Russia and/or meddling by James Comey? I do not recall a lot of hand-wringing about how questioning that election outcome was going to threaten democracy, but perhaps I missed it. In both cases, the losing party cannot possibly believe that so many of their fellow Americans cannot see what is so obvious to them, so there must be something else going on. L.B., Iowa City, IA

A: These are not comparable situations. Many Democrats did think Comey should have kept his mouth shut, and suggested that without that "October Surprise," Trump would not have won. They also thought that Trump was aided by the Russians, which he was, and that was a serious problem. They wondered, quite reasonably, if Trump knowingly conspired with the Russians. If proven, that would be a serious crime worthy of prosecution and possible removal, followed by the succession of Mike Pence to the presidency. Finally, Democrats also lamented voter ID laws and other voter-suppression measures, and wondered if those things made Trump's victory possible. However, the Democrats were not arguing that Hillary Clinton actually won the election, and that her victory was being obscured by widespread fraud on the part of pro-Trump election officials. If any Democrats described him as "not legitimate," they meant that in the sense of "completely lacking a mandate to govern."

By contrast, Trump and his followers are arguing that Joe Biden did not actually win the election. They have asserted, without evidence, that vast numbers of pro-Trump votes were destroyed, or trashed, or not counted, or whatever. They have also asserted that vast numbers of illegal Biden votes were cast, either by undocumented immigrants, or by unethical Democratic voters, or maybe by the boogie man. When the Trumpers describe Biden as "not legitimate," they mean that in the sense of "not duly elected, and not legally exercising the powers of the presidency." Part of the deal with democracy is that you have to accept the results of elections your side loses, lick your wounds, and try to do better next time. Refusal to abide by that social contract is very dangerous.

The executive summary is this: There is a world of difference between "Hillary Clinton really, really should have won the election of 2016" and "Donald Trump did win the election of 2020."

Q: You wrote: "Not helping things is that there are many foreign actors who also benefit from [tensions between Israel and the Palestinians] in various ways, including the Arab States, the United States, Russia, Iran, etc."

How do they benefit?
M.C., Oak Ridge, TN

A: This is not an exhaustive answer, since that would take many books. But in a very small nutshell:

  • Arab States: They use the treatment of the Palestinians as a wedge issue to fire up their populations.

  • United States: Republicans use the "terrorism" of the Palestinians as a wedge issue to fire up their evangelical base, and also to attract some conservative Jewish voters. Some progressive Democrats use the treatment of the Palestinians as a wedge issue to fire up their base.

  • Russia: They want to keep Muslim radicalism from reaching Russia (the Muslim population there is growing while the Slavic population is shrinking). In order to do that, the Russians play the various Middle Eastern powers off of each other, so the focus of domestic Muslims remains on that part of the world and not so much on Russia itself. Israeli-Palestinian violence is a particularly effective distraction.

  • Iran: They are pretty much in a perpetual, undeclared war with Israel. Every time the Palestinians get into it with the Israelis, the Iranians achieve their military goals (hurt Israel) without having to risk their own soldiers or use their own bombs, planes, etc.

Q: You quoted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) as saying: "I will never understand the resistance... to voter ID." Quite frankly, although I differ from Cheney on most topics, I can't quite understand it either. I have lived in the U.S. for six years, and I know there are some historical reasons, but I never understood them. Would you enlighten me? In all other countries I know an ID card is required when voting, and nobody complains. H.M., Berlin, Germany

A: Nobody would have an issue with voter ID laws if ID was: (1) easy to get, (2) easy to update in the case of marriage, change of residence, etc., and (3) easy to replace in case of loss or theft. The problem is that getting ID is not all that easy. To start with, it requires paperwork that is easily misplaced, and that is difficult and sometimes expensive to replace. For example, if you lose your birth certificate and you were born in California, you can return to your county of birth and fill out a bunch of paperwork and pay about $40 in fees. Or you can do it from a distance, filling out the same paperwork, and paying about $100. In either scenario, it takes anywhere from 2-6 weeks to get the actual document. It's even harder to get a birth certificate if you are foreign-born, particularly in a country with poor record-keeping. Social Security cards are generally free, and can be gotten or replaced in a wider range of places, but still take a couple of weeks.

Then, once someone has the paperwork—assuming they have the time and money to clear all the hurdles—they have to convert that into an ID, which is another process that involves a lot of time and hassle, and usually some amount of expense. For more of the grisly details when it comes to this portion of the process, keep reading.

Q: I recently got my license renewed. It was a simple renewal with no changes in my life and I live in a Democratic-dominated state. Even with that, I still had to bring several documents proving who I am and book the renewal over a month in advance. At the renewal I had to wait in line and fill out forms on my phone saying I don't have COVID symptoms. Also, directly in front of the DMV there was an SUV with big State Trooper decals and an armed guard at the entrance. The DMV also notes that I am unable to get a license if I am behind on taxes, which cuts out some percent of people with income issues. In the past I simply renewed by mail or walked into the DMV and used a self-serve kiosk but REAL ID laws made this not possible.

I had to have some documents verified at a DMV in another state and it was a month and a half just to have any basic paperwork done. I imagine there are long waits in DMVs all over the country.

Even if they aren't intentional, this combination of lots of documents, booking over a month in advance using a computer, a fear of COVID and police presence seems a very effective way to reduce the number of eligible voters. Any state that wanted to make it harder to get an ID could simply increase the wait times at the DMV in certain parts of the state.

Is there any data on how COVID or REAL ID are affecting voter registration?
R.M., Baltimore, MD

A: Not really. First of all, states tend to produce reports only sporadically during non-election years. Second, it is difficult to separate COVID or REAL ID from other influences when it comes to registration numbers.

The one thing we can tell you is that the pandemic (and the advent of REAL ID) won't necessarily depress registration totals everywhere. Some states have liberalized their processes specifically because of the public health issues. For example, if you look here, you will see that 88.03% of eligible California voters are registered as of Feb. 10, 2021. That is the first time this decade that the number has exceeded 80%.

Q: A few decades ago, my ninth grade civics teacher explained that youth tend to be liberal and demand change. As people age they become more invested in the system, and more conservative and resistant to change. I grew up in a religious and conservative household, and have gradually become more liberal throughout my life. Am I an anomaly, or was my civics teacher incorrect? W.F., Blairs Mills, PA

A: It's a theory that certainly seems to make sense, and that has wide currency, but research has consistently shown that it's basically not true. Most people's political identities are formed in their teens and early twenties, and stay basically the same thereafter.

We will give two caveats, however. The first is that some people do shift, of course, and it's more common to go liberal to conservative than conservative to liberal. So you are indeed an anomaly. The second caveat is that someone who develops their political identity in their youth may appear to grow more conservative by remaining in place while the world shifts leftward. For example, someone who was "fairly liberal" on race issues in 1955 would be considered fairly conservative on race issues today. Also, someone who strongly supported women's rights in 1955 might not necessarily support the rights of trans women (and thus would be deemed conservative now).

Q: Though I expect it's all for show and there's no way parts of Oregon and Northern California could possibly join up with Idaho to create a so called "Greater Idaho", what are the odds that this movement succeeds? K.C., West Islip, NY

A: Zero. And if an answer lower than zero was possible, we would go with that.

While this sort of maneuvering is ostensibly possible under the terms of the Constitution, it requires approval from four entities: the secessionists, the secessionists' state, the state that would be adding new territory, and Congress. The latter three of those have strong interests in objecting; the secessionists' state doesn't want to lose a bunch of land and taxpayers, the state that would be adding new territory doesn't want to water down its political power, and Congress does not want to invite chaos. There's no chance that all four entities get on board with this, or any other secession movement.

Indeed, there have been hundreds of these efforts over the years, and none of them have ever worked. See here for a partial list.

Q: I'm a life-long Cubs fan and genuinely believe that Major League Baseball needs the Cardinals. I'm a life-long Packers fan and genuinely believe that the NFL needs the Bears. But, as a Democrat, I can't come around to genuinely believing that the USA needs the Republican Party, with or without Trump. Can you help me understand? J.E., Boone, NC

A: Well, the lesson that Americans learned during the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" (1810s-1830s) was that the existence of political parties may mean a built-in opposition, but they also mean a built-in base of support. In their absence, a Congress with 100 members effectively has 100 political parties. And similarly, the voting public is equally fragmented in the absence of parties. This is why the election of 1824 had four major presidential candidates, and none of them came close to claiming a majority.

So, the value of the Republican Party to a Democrat is that, in effect, the Republicans serve to keep the Democrats basically unified. That said, the minority party is supposed to serve as a "loyal opposition," and to observe certain basic tenets of Democratic government. The Republicans have not been great about that in the last few years.

Oh, and while we can make a case for the role Republicans have to play in the U.S. political system, we fail to see what purpose the Bears serve.

Q: I truly enjoy your website and have for years. Even though I would classify myself as a moderate Republican, I try my best to keep an open mind, consider others' opinions and learn as much as I can on any given subject while forming my own opinion. I read this site daily in an attempt to take all opinions into consideration and in most cases find your content to be somewhat fair and factually informative.

That said, this week you wrote: "[S]ometimes people who are homeschooled, or are schooled in red-leaning states, learn a version of the past that is pure fantasy crafted in service of a modern-day agenda." I submit that this statement is equally true on both sides of the political aisle, independent of what state you are educated in. To say only red-leaning states sometimes slant history does not take into account that blue-leaning states sometimes teach in a similar manner, also with a "fantasy crafted in service of a modern-day agenda." This 100% goes both ways regarding teaching of history in my opinion. Your thoughts would be appreciated.
F.P., Columbus, OH

A: Let us begin by pointing out that every single state, and every single teacher, slants history. It is impossible to do otherwise. There are many teachers who do their very best to play it straight, but that is an ideal that can never fully be achieved.

Second, there is no question that many left-wingers, and left-leaning states, put some pretty aggressive lefty spin on things, and sometimes that spin moves into the realm of fantasy in service of a modern-day agenda. The 1619 Project, as we have written, is sometimes guilty of this. So too are the works of many postmodern or Marxist historians. As are biographies that try to appropriate historical figures as members of some modern-day group, like those that argue that Abraham Lincoln was gay, or that there have been 14 Black U.S. presidents.

That said, reinventing the past as something closer to fiction—what one might call extreme slanting—tends to be considerably more common in red states, particularly those in the Midwest or the South. And the Republican Party is rather more likely to elect extremists to office than the Democratic Party is. Finally, the Democratic base—on the whole—has less tolerance with utter nonsense than the Republican base does. When Rick Santorum decreed that Native Americans had relatively little impact on American culture, right-wing politicians and media outlets said "ho, hum." If, say, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) were to decree that Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison were the actual authors of the Constitution, she'd be shredded by lefties across the country.

Q: You sometimes mention something interesting and related to your subject. For example, you wrote: "One of the most difficult things to communicate to students—and (Z) has a whole lecture segment built around Father Junipero Serra and dedicated to this—is that the historian must resist holding people of the past to the standards of the present." But then you had no room to expand on that. Understandable, but a little frustrating. Would you like to at least summarize that segment here? M.E.G., Boulder, CO

A: When we do that, we hope and assume the missing information is generally possible to infer from context. But in any case, Serra was tasked by the Spanish king with heading the "Sacred Expedition"—the project to build missions in Spanish California and to convert the natives to Catholicism. That project was what we in the 21st century would call cultural imperialism, and also led to the deaths of tens of thousands of natives from Spanish diseases, as well as the rape of thousands of natives by Spanish soldiers.

However, Serra did not think he was imposing himself on the natives, he honestly believed he was saving their eternal souls. He, like all humans of his era, did not understand germ theory, and so did not grasp why the outbreaks of disease were happening or what might be done about them. He tried desperately to curtail the rapes, writing many letters to authorities back in Spain. Unfortunately, he did not have deadly force at his disposal, and the Spanish soldiers did, so they were able to do as they pleased. Serra was also famously consistent about Catholic doctrine, and did not hold the natives (or anyone else) to a different standard than he did himself. For example, he once wrote a letter instructing that if he was killed in a native rebellion (as two of his junior missionaries were in San Diego in 1769), he absolutely, categorically did not want his murderers to be put to death, but instead wanted them to be forgiven in accordance with Catholic teachings (although he did insist that they do penance).

The upshot of the lecture segment is that pretty much everyone who lived before 1950 is a pretty bad person—racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or whatever—if judged by 21st century standards. And while modern citizens are free to reach whatever conclusions they wish, based on whatever standards they wish, professional historians try to avoid presentism, and to evaluate people by the standards of their day.

Q: Perhaps you can help me with a dilemma. I read a book one time—and I am so proud of myself—about U.S. history between Columbus in 1492 and Plymouth in 1620. I remember the author as Bill Bryson, but have come to doubt my memory as I cannot find the book. The book started with those dates and the fact that between them, not much is commonly known. The book was horrible in the recounting of the decimation of the people living here when Europeans arrived. Basically, of course, the East coast is fertile, and supported a lot of native people—and they were wantonly killed off. Could you point me to a couple of books on the subject? E.L., Manassas, VA

A: First of all, the book you are describing sounds to us like Tony Horwitz' A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. As to additional recommendations, Sarah Vowell writes in a similar style, and often looks at the seedy underbelly of U.S. history. She hasn't written a whole book about pre-colonial America, but she did write Unfamiliar Fishes, about imperialism and the annexation of Hawaii. That one might be of interest to you as a companion to the Horwitz book.

Beyond that, the untold and unpleasant parts of U.S. history were Howard Zinn's bailiwick for his entire career, most obviously in his mega-bestseller A People's History of the United States. If you don't already know the book, and you decide to pick up a copy, beware—it's a real downer. You might also enjoy the works of James Loewen: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong discusses some of the portions of U.S. history that tend to be mis-represented in classrooms, and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong looks at a couple of hundred notable and semi-notable historical monuments that distort the past.

Q: It's not my intention to defend Rick Santorum against criticism. But can you comment on the historical accuracy of the claim that there was a clear fault line in the dominant culture of the people residing in North America, when new immigrants killed off most of the people who came earlier? For example, (Z) listed three dozen English words of native American origin, but surely, most words (and the very structure of the language used) come from another language originally developed on the British isles. I wouldn't be surprised if you can even identify more words of Spanish than of native origin. And this goes for all the other examples listed, like place names.

I'm not a historian, but it seems to me that the histories of Greece, China and Turkey seem to lack similar clean breaks of continuity in culture going back many hundreds of years.
G.T., Budapest, Hungary

A: The term used to describe this general dynamic is "cultural exchange," and it would be incorrect to say that the process did not take place in Greece, China, or Turkey. Greece, for example, was once the Greek empire, and then became a possession of, in order, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans. That profoundly shaped their development, as did their location at the crossroads of the Near East. Yes, you could argue that there was a foundation there that remained present over the centuries and millennia. But Greek culture ca. 1000 and Greek culture ca. 1950 were not at all the same thing.

Meanwhile, American culture is just about the worst case study for the argument that Rick Santorum was trying to make. Yes, it is true that English ended up as the United States' dominant language, and English culture became a very important "feeder" for American culture. But the English were here for more than a century before gaining a real foothold, and were here for nearly two centuries before the U.S. declared independence. That is a long time; there was no clear fault line. Meanwhile, "English" culture quickly evolved, in part due to distance, and in part due to the fact that the circumstances faced by New World colonists were so different from those of the Old World. And North America in general, and the English colonies in particular, were unusually cosmopolitan places, with people of Native American, African, French, Spanish, and Dutch descent, among others, intermingling. That meant that there was an unusually high amount of borrowing and amalgamating, a process that only hastened as America added immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe, much of Asia, etc., and also acquired land from, and a border with, Mexico.

Again, the dominant language is indeed English because it's somewhat impractical to ask all citizens to be fluent in six languages. But beyond that, English culture is only one ingredient in the stew. And speaking of stew, one of the best ways to think about this question is to consider American food. Unlike most nations, there isn't really an "American" cuisine that developed organically over the years in response to the weather and the local flora and fauna. The vast, vast majority of "American" dishes are actually borrowed from other cultures. That includes clam chowder (English), hamburgers (German), tacos (Mexican), sushi (Japanese), pizza (Italian), barbecue (the Caribbean), coffee (African), peanuts (Native American), egg rolls (Chinese), ice cream (French), and doughnuts (Dutch).

Q: How does "The Newt" rate on historical utterances? I know he taught history at a college before being elected to the House of Representatives. I've always suspected that he served his students poorly given his proclivity toward bias. S.N., Santa Clara, CA

A: (Z) has heard Newt Gingrich on TV dozens of times, and has never heard the slightest utterance from him on historical matters. That itself is probably instructive.

It is true that he has a Ph.D. in history, and it's true that he was once a history professor. However, his Ph.D. is actually in European history, which means he would not be expected to have much more than a general familiarity with U.S. history. And during his time as professor, he found lots of ways to acquire duties that took him out of the classroom and reduced his teaching load (this is called "release time" for those unfamiliar with the lingo of academia). He was also denied tenure. So, he was barely a teacher at all, and when he was, he was apparently not outstanding as either an educator or researcher.

He does write historical novels, but that doesn't take much expertise, since you can just make up whatever you want. Our guess is that he knows enough U.S. history to be aware of how much he really doesn't know, which is why he doesn't raise the subject.

Q: Your item on the Holocaust taught me a great deal of Nazi history. Two of the points you raised ("Reductio ad Hitlerum" and "The Milieu") made me wonder if ever there was even any evil person who committed more severe crimes by standards of his time than Hitler? L.M.S, Harbin, China

A: We are going to start with a question: Who is the first person you think of when you hear the phrase "brilliant scientist?" Think of an answer; we'll get back to it in a few moments.

Anyhow, it is rather difficult to compare atrocities across time and place, because you run the risk of downplaying one atrocity or the other, and each atrocity has its own character. Is it worse to slaughter a million people, or is it worse to slaughter 120,000, but those 120,000 are 80% of the population? Those are the sorts of questions that are just too loaded to dig into.

That said, (Z) starts every lecture in every class with a question for students to answer. And the question that starts the World War II lecture is: "Which World War II leader may have been responsible for the death of 20 million civilians?" The first guess is usually Hitler, but 20 million is far higher than any of the figures that have been attributed to him (usually somewhere from 7-10 million). The correct answer is Joseph Stalin. And the point of the question is to establish the main theme of the lecture, namely that the "allies" in World War II were often nations who had common enemies, not necessarily nations who were friends. And so, Stalin was a bastard, but he was the United States' bastard. He is also a plausible answer to your question. So too is Mao Zedong, who was responsible for between 20 and 45 million deaths.

So why are Hitler's crimes better known than those of Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or Idi Amin, or other maniacs? Well, that's where the question at the beginning comes in. Something like 65% of people will answer that query with "Albert Einstein." He was brilliant, of course, but there were certainly contemporaries who were on his general level, whether John von Neumann or Claude Shannon or Marie Curie or Max Planck. However, for various reasons—he said clever and witty things, he posed for funny pictures, he had a distinctive look, he had a memorable name—he has become Western culture's archetype of genius. Similarly, because Hitler's crimes were so awful, and were the focal point of the biggest and ugliest war in world history, he has become Western culture's archetype of unmitigated evil. So, he's much better known as an evildoer than Stalin, just as Einstein is much better known as a genius than Planck.

As a sidebar, the archetype thing also works with non-human things. For example, if you ask people to name a vegetable, about 70% of them will choose...a carrot. That is apparently the Western archetype of vegetables.

Q: Are you sure your references to kabuki theater aren't the slightest bit culturally insensitive? To compare a revered artistic cultural expression to some of the rather undignified machinations of politics as you do leaves a slight sour taste for me. Justify! J.M., Gisborne, New Zealand

A: Using a concept from one culture as a metaphor to help understand and explain a dynamic in a different culture is generally not insensitive, as it generally does not imply a judgment of the original item. If we write, "Donald Trump's 60 post-election lawsuits were a Hail Mary attempt to salvage his presidency," nobody reads that as a slight on Catholics or football players. If we write, "Anthony Fauci's explanation of retroviruses may have made sense to experts, but it was all Greek to us," nobody reads that as a slight on the Greek language or Greek culture. If we write, "Bernie Madoff ran the world's largest pyramid scheme," nobody reads that as a slight on the Egyptian people or their history. And if we write, "During the debate, Joe Biden delivered a crushing body check on Trump in his opening statement," nobody reads that as a slight on Canadian culture. Even if that's actually how we meant it.

The circumstance where one would run into issues is if the appropriated concept was itself insulting, particularly of a particular ethnic or cultural group. So, you don't want to say that Donald Trump is "off the reservation," as that originated as a snotty comment about unruly Native Americans. And while you can say that he might go "up the river" (a reference to the infamous Sing-Sing Prison), you can't say he might go "down the river" (a reference to misbehaving slaves).

Q: If you're still open to behind the scenes questions, what is your process in selecting which questions make it to print? D.M., Granite Bay, CA

A: We've answered this before, but we are asked often enough that we will answer again. Generally speaking, we tend to favor questions that: (1) connect well with the other questions we're using that week, (2) are as clear and concise as practicable, and (3) that we feel we have something interesting or useful to offer that could not be learned with a Google search.

On the other hand, we tend to shy away from questions where (1) the premise takes many paragraphs to set up, (2) the asker partly or mostly answers their own question, leaving us to say "sounds good!", or (3) we are given an article and asked to comment on it. The latter sort is better for the items e-mail address, as a proper response to an article takes more time and space than is generally plausible in this particular space.

Needless to say, we reject all questions from e-mail addresses as a matter of course. It just takes too long to correct all the misspellings.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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