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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  House Passes Build Back Better
      •  Rittenhouse Cleared on All Charges
      •  The First Female President
      •  Saturday Q&A

House Passes Build Back Better

It has been a long time coming, but the House has finally passed its version of the Build Back Better bill. The vote was 220 to 213, breaking down entirely along party lines excepting that Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) crossed the aisle to vote with the Republicans. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) might be the greatest whipper of votes in the history of Congress.

When we wrote about this yesterday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was in the midst of the longest speech in the history of the House. We thought it had ended, since CSPAN had shut down its coverage for the day, and since various outlets referred to the speech in the past tense. However, he actually continued on until 5:15 a.m. ET, around the time yesterday's post went live. He thus took over the record held by Pelosi herself, outpacing her by about 15 minutes. It remains the case that he wore comfortable shoes, and she wore four-inch stilettos, so we're not terribly impressed, especially since McCarthy ran out of relevant stuff to say and started bloviating about whatever came into his head. His original purpose was to force the vote to take place late at night, so he could spin it as somehow haphazard or dishonest. When it became clear that would not happen, then the whole thing became a song-and-dance for benefit of the Trump crowd. Something along the lines of "See! I can publicly perform my disdain for Democrats just as well as Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)."

The House's version of the bill calls for $1.9 trillion in outlays, including money for universal pre-K, child care, paid family and sick leave, child tax credits, home health care, expansion of the ACA, climate change mitigation, affordable housing, and immigration reform. Some of those things get far more money than others, of course. The $570 billion for combating climate change is likely to go a fair sight further than, for example, the $25 billion for affordable housing.

Now the ball is in the Senate's court, and all eyes will be on Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). They are presumably going to insist on some cuts and some changes, but this thing is now getting very close to the finish line, and is now far more likely to become law than it is to collapse in the face of Democratic bickering. Presumably, this will be agenda item #1A for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) after the Thanksgiving break. (Z)

Rittenhouse Cleared on All Charges

The jury in the Kyle Rittenhouse case deliberated for a week, which obviously means they were having trouble rendering a verdict that all members found satisfactory. But yesterday, they finally reached a decision, and Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all counts.

Because he became a cause célèbre among conservatives, Rittenhouse was able to afford excellent legal representation. And because his alleged crimes occurred in Wisconsin, and in the 21st century, those attorneys had plenty of room within the law to work with. The least serious charge, but the one that was the biggest slam dunk, was "minor in possession of a firearm." However, due to the clumsy wording of the relevant Wisconsin law, that charge was dismissed before it ever got to the jury, because... wait for it... the barrel of the gun that Rittenhouse was carrying was long enough so as to exempt him from prosecution. Really. The law can be read as applying only to guns with barrels of 16 inches or less. You can click on the link for details, if you want. The law was written in order to allow 17-year-olds to hunt deer with a rifle, not hunt people with a high-powered weapon, but the law simply says "16 inches."

As to the more serious charges, Rittenhouse's lawyers were able to make the case that he was acting in self-defense. It used to be the case that, if a person was faced with danger and was outside of their residence, they had a duty to try to retreat and could not invoke self-defense if they did not make an attempt to do so. Recently, as encouraged by the NRA and other lobbyists, and by the advent of "stand your ground" laws, a person can claim self-defense in any circumstance as long as they felt they were in danger and as long as they were not the aggressor. One might think that if you go get yourself a large, dangerous gun, and you drive right into the middle of an urban uprising in a state you do not live in and start waving that gun around, that would be at least a teensy-weensy bit of aggression. However, the prosecution did a poor job here and the defense was able to effectively treat each of the three shootings that Rittenhouse committed as discrete events as opposed to pieces of a larger overall picture. Aiding the defense in making their case is that the jury only heard one side of the story in two of the three cases, since the people who might have told the other side are dead by Rittenhouse's hand.

Given double jeopardy law, Rittenhouse cannot be tried again on these charges, nor can his exoneration be appealed. His home state of Illinois would theoretically be able to prosecute him on a weapons charge, but authorities there have already declined because they say they cannot prove he ever possessed the gun while in the state. The federal government might be able to pursue Rittenhouse, and House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) wants the Department of Justice to take a long look at the possibility. However, barring some very creative lawyering here, the only federal law that was clearly broken was the one that forbids "straw man" purchases wherein an adult purchases a gun on behalf of a minor, since the minor is not legally allowed to do so themselves. And that sort of prosecution would likely target the purchaser (Dominick Black) and not Rittenhouse.

In short, Rittenhouse is unlikely to suffer any sort of criminal penalty for his actions. A civil judgment is another matter, however. Several suits have already been filed on behalf of the people he shot, and the standard of proof in a civil trial is lower than in a criminal trial. Rittenhouse is not wealthy, or at least he wasn't until he pulled his Charles Bronson act. But he's collected a great deal of money—seven figures—in donations, and he's likely to write a book, or sell his story to some media outlet, or otherwise to try to cash in on his fame and his status as a right-wing hero. So, he may end up with deep enough pockets to pay out a fat judgment.

It's not the job of a court to consider the public policy implications of its decisions, but hoo boy does this verdict send an absolutely terrible message. Is there any doubt that right-wingers of various sorts will be showing up to protests armed to the teeth, hoping that they are put into a position where they can claim they were provoked and that they only started firing in self-defense?

A reader—and we don't have clear permission to quote them and identify them by their initials, so we'll paraphrase—writes in with the observation that the American legal system has shifted so far in favor of the Second Amendment and of "self-defense" that those Americans who do not wish to carry guns are left in a very difficult position. If a person who is armed—at an uprising, while hiking, when getting coffee at Starbucks—feels "threatened," then in many/most states, they have near-universal cover for whatever they want to do. The feelings of their target(s) don't much matter, assuming those target(s) even live long enough to tell their tale.

The implication here is that the only real way for unarmed Americans to be 100% safe, when put into a position where there is a gun, is to leave. Someone walks into Starbucks and they're carrying? You leave. You're at a political rally, and armed Proud Boys show up? You leave. You're on the bus and someone with a sidearm gets on? You get off. That's the only surefire option. Admittedly, it's an easier policy to adhere to in some states than in others.

The strategy we're describing here, incidentally, is very nearly the same strategy that Black Americans, particularly in the South, were forced to adhere to for generations whenever placed into a situation in which they might face racist aggression. The legal system was nearly always going to side with the white person, so the Black person had no real option but to extract themselves from the situation. Eventually, their hands forced in part by the Civil Rights Movement, Americans decided that state of affairs was not acceptable. Maybe one day there will be mass pushback against the Second Amendment run amok, too. (Z)

The First Female President

No woman, of course, has been elected to the presidency of the United States, or has legally succeeded to that office upon its becoming vacant. And so, when the phrase "America's first female president" is used to describe someone, that someone is almost always Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, who assumed significant executive responsibilities after her husband Woodrow's stroke. It was kept on the down-low, and there was no Twenty-Fifth Amendment then, so nobody really could or did say "boo."

There is now a second contender for that title, however. As part of his annual physical, Joe Biden was anesthetized for about an hour and a half yesterday so that he might have a colonoscopy. And during that time, he handed off the powers of his office to VP Kamala Harris. That does not legally make her president, but it did give her presidential authority. So, until a woman actually assumes the office, it's between Harris and Edith Wilson when arguing about which woman has come closest to being POTUS.

Meanwhile, this story presents yet another contrast between Biden and his predecessor. Donald Trump was unwilling to yield power, even briefly, when he underwent the same procedure, and was also unwilling to let the nation know that he was getting scoped. When the truth came out, Trump became the butt of a lot of jokes, including from us, as a response to his vanity and his attempt to pull a fast one. Biden was truthful, and there have been no jokes. Similarly, once the President's physical was complete, the report was that he's in good shape for a 78-year-old man, but that he's got some arthritis and some reflux, and that he and his doctor will be working on those things. That's a fair bit more believable than "the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency." (Z)

Saturday Q&A

Some of these answers are going to be trouble.

Current Events

J.P. in Henderson, NV, asks: Why have you written several times this week that the U.S. economy is poor despite most economic numbers indicating otherwise? The unemployment rate is near what is considered "full employment" at 4.6%. The GDP is showing positive and healthy growth for the year. The stock market is at near record highs and the S&P 500 is up an amazing 27% YTD. There are millions of job openings for workers to choose from and unemployment claims are at post-pandemic lows. I understand that inflation is a big issue and concern at the moment and people are cranky at the gas pump. But this is largely driven by consumers buying stuff like crazy due to pent up demand. High consumer demand for goods is a good economic sign, not the opposite. Are you a victim of perception over reality? If so, that is pretty disappointing, because I look to you guys to drive common misperceptions to reality and not the other way around.

V & Z answer: It is rare, excepting an event like the Great Depression, that every single economic indicator is negative. And so, there are certainly many signs the economy is doing OK, including many of the most important signs.

However, as you suggest, perception is often reality when it comes to the politics of the economy. And most of the "positive" indicators are things that only cross the radars of some people—those who are looking for a job, or those who have a stock portfolio, etc. Meanwhile, many of the "negative" indicators are those that cross the radars of many people—like high gas prices, or supply shortages. And so, Biden and the Democrats are being hurt right now by "the economy." Polling backs that up.

As to our writing, on the day you sent this message, we had this passage:

Even at such point that Biden holds his next trillion-dollar signing ceremony—assuming he does—then he and his poor approval ratings are hardly out of the woods. The economy isn't great right now, and the one or two bills are not likely to change that anytime soon.

This is, we assume, the sort of thing you were writing about (and we got numerous other letters along the same lines). But we're really not commenting on the economy, per se, we're commenting on its effect on Biden, politically. Perhaps we could have worded it a bit more clearly, like writing "The economy isn't great for him right now." But when you write 3,500 to 10,000 words per night with a (self-imposed) near-term deadline, not every sentence is going to be a polished gem.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: You wrote that President Biden would do well to do more to sell his policies and accomplishments to voters. Let's say that (V) and (Z) were at a fundraiser for Democratic candidates and had 3 minutes of the President's time, and he asked what you thought he could do to help the Party most. Naturally, you were well-prepared and ready to talk fast. What would you say?

V & Z answer: He and his administration need to put on a full-court press on the PR front, appearing on traditional politics-themed shows like Meet the Press, but also nontraditional shows like The Tonight Show or Howard Stern's radio program. And Biden can't let surrogates do all of this; he needs to do several high-profile appearances; maybe a 60 Minutes long-form interview, and a CNN town hall, and ideally an appearance on Fox News. He'd need to pick someone on the latter outlet who wouldn't turn the appearance into a circus; Neil Cavuto would be fine, or Chris Wallace.

Biden also has to get a little more comfortable making assertions about the state of the economy, and how well (certain) things are going. The President finds this distasteful, in part because it's what Donald Trump did, and in part because today's positive indicator could quickly become tomorrow's negative indicator. However, if Biden does not tell his story about the state of the economy, then he leaves a vacuum in which the media and the Republican Party get to tell the story for him.

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: I'm curious to know why the moderate (or should that be "moderate"?) Senate Republicans (Sens. Susan Collins, R-ME; Lisa Murkowski, R-AK; and Mitt Romney. R-UT; did I miss any?) are unwilling to defy Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and vote for the reconciliation bill. McConnell can't strip them of their committee assignments, as a majority of the Senate would have to agree, and I don't think he controls the office room assignments, so I don't think he has any leverage.

I can understand Murkowski's reluctance, as she is up for re-election in 2022. Romney is up in 2024, so might be worried about being on the same ballot with Donald Trump. But Collins just got re-elected and won't face Maine's voters until 2026, when all of this will be in the long-distant past.

So why won't they support the reconciliation bill? Does it really go against their political philosophies?

V & Z answer: First, it could very well go against their political philosophies. Those three are basically Ronald Reagan clones. And while that makes them "moderates" (which you rightly put in quotations) today, it is the case that Reagan fetishized "small government" (even though, as the guy who pushed "Star Wars," he had a funny conception of that term).

Second, McConnell could indeed strip them of their committee assignments. And there could be a time when he's Majority Leader again, and would have other tools to make their lives hard.

However, we would guess that the main consideration is that anyone who votes with the Democrats here will promptly become public enemy No. 1 for Donald Trump and his acolytes. At best, that means constant attacks from the former president, from his followers, and from his media mouthpieces. At worst, that means literal threats on the lives of the aisle-crosser(s).

Of the three, we would guess that Murkowski's vote is the most gettable, since a little pork goes a long ways in Alaska, and since she's already got a Trumper challenger, and needs all the non-Trumper support she can get. However, we would also guess that Joe Manchin is much closer to "yes" than Murkowski is, and that Chuck Schumer knows it, very possibly based on information that is not publicly available. So, his focus will be on twisting Manchin's arm, unless the point arrives that Manchin goes Full Sherman and says "I'm a no, and that's not changing."

S.K. in Chappaqua, NY, asks: How much authority does the bipartisan infrastructure bill afford the executive branch with respect to allocation of funds to, oh, say, West Virginia vs. Alaska, to take a very nonrandomly selected example?

V & Z answer: Very little. A large portion of the funds are earmarked for specific projects, like a bridge from Kentucky to Ohio, restoration of the San Francisco Bay, and cleaning up the Great Lakes. Money that is not already earmarked is generally doled out by a formula that considers a state's population and a few other factors.

Like all veteran senators, Joe Manchin and Lisa Murkowski know that the time to stick your hand out is before the bill is voted on. And so, Manchin got a bunch of goodies related to coal, most obviously $11.3 billion for the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund. And Murkowski got a bunch, too, most obviously $3.5 billion to fix highways and $225 million to fix broken bridges.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Is it accurate to say that the anti-vaxxers are responsible for more deaths than all of the terrorists in the world in the last decade? Would that make a good public message?

V & Z answer: Both of these quantities are difficult to judge with any sort of precision, albeit for different reasons. The challenge, when it comes to terrorist deaths, is that the definition of "terrorism" is somewhat imprecise, and involves a certain amount of judgment (including, very possibly some value judgment) on the part of those who are compiling the numbers. Since the U.S., the U.N., and Interpol all rely heavily on national governments' self-reporting, it's possible that the component figures could represent very different standards for what is/is not "terrorism."

With that caveat, for the last decade, all three of those entities reported an average of about 22,000 deaths/year at the hands of terrorists, which means a total of about 220,000 deaths from Jan 1, 2011 to Jan. 1, 2021. Obviously, figures since Jan. 1. 2021 have not been compiled yet.

Meanwhile, the problem with "deaths due to antivaxxers" is that it would be very difficult to identify to a certainty those people who, but for anti-vaxx sentiment, would be alive today. Since nearly all deaths in industrialized nations these days are among the unvaccinated, and since most of the unvaccinated are that way because they are anti-vaxx, you could probably make a case that most of those people who have died since the shots became widely available died from anti-vaxx sentiment. However, that would require making a lot of assumptions, and would only produce a ballpark figure.

That said, the worldwide total for COVID-19 deaths just passed 5 million. So, if just 5% of those would have survived, but for anti-vaxx sentiment, then the anti-vaxx death toll would exceed the terrorism death toll. And we think it's pretty reasonable to assume that anti-vaxxers have increased the death toll by at least 5%.

However, we also think that trying to use that comparison as a political weapon would be ill-advised, because it would be tantamount to accusing tens of millions of Americans of being worse than terrorists. Recall what happened when Hillary Clinton merely said that some portion of Donald Trump's base was "deplorable." That certainly didn't work to the Democrats favor, and accusing people of being terrorists is several degrees of magnitude worse.

R.L.D. in Sundance, NY, asks: You wrote about a Virginia focus group "One voter remarked that if she uses the 'wrong' word for something, they label her a bigot." I hear this sentiment a lot, particularly from P.M. from Currituck, and it's a strong theme in the rhetoric of Tucker Carlson, but I've never actually heard a Democrat label anyone a bigot for using a "politically incorrect" term.

I've never gotten any memos from the DNC about which terms we are using this week, nor have I seen or heard anyone provide a source for what terms label you a bigot. What I have seen is people suggesting that the words we use can be hurtful and we might think about ways to say things that affirm a person's humanity. They also are looking for terms that are as inclusive as possible. But maybe I'm living a sheltered life. Maybe Tucker Carlson is right that using the wrong term actually carries a real stigma and I'm just naive. So my question is: are other people really being told they are bigots when they use the "wrong" term? Is this true or is it just truthy?

V & Z answer: We would suggest that there are three major dynamics going on:

  1. The Propaganda Campaign: As you point out, Fox loves, loves, loves to take the most egregious and seemingly nonsensical examples of language policing, and to make a huge deal out of them, suggesting not only that they are typical but also that they are coming from some large entity—Democrats as a whole, or the DNC, or the White House, etc.—as opposed to from a specific person, or a particular school district, or a small city council. And, of course, it's not just Fox, it's all the right-wing outlets, particularly the right-wingers on radio (who are always in need of material to fill 2-4 hours of airtime daily). All of this creates the perception that there is a significant, nationwide corps of wild-eyed, out-of-control PC cops.

  2. Exposure: Even when a person is not directly asked/compelled to consider their language choices, they are often exposed to others who are doing so: listening to NPR, to take the obvious example, or signing up for Facebook and seeing that the platform offers 58 different options of genders, or e-mail signature lines that include a person's pronouns. One could just ignore these things if they are not applicable to one's self, but for some people, they are taken as more evidence of the vast problem that Fox, et al., are talking about. They are like a red flag being waved in front of a bull. Bulls are actually red-blue colorblind, but most Republicans are not.

  3. Experience: All of this said, this is not just a bugaboo that has been created in some people's minds. There really is a lot of language policing out there. It's not usually the outlandish things that cause Tucker Carlson to soil his shorts, like criticizing someone for using "mother" instead of "birthing person." It's generally more subtle things, and there are tens of thousands of possibilities. Sometimes the policing happens in individual interactions, but it's particularly likely to happen in a person's workplace, since employers want to avoid lawsuits from other employees, and to avoid aggravating their customers.

    Our experience is not typical, since we write a lot of words, and put them before a large number of people. However, we do think it's instructive. Multiple times per week, we get e-mails declaring something that we wrote to be offensive in some way or another (racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, and many others). Since we are both teachers at public universities and have taught thousands of students drawn from diverse student bodies, it is rather unlikely that we are overtly racist, etc., or that we are not sensitive to our word choices, because if we had either of these problems, that would have come up in the classroom (or the department chair's office) many years ago.

    Sometimes, when writing fast, we do slip up and write things that could be read in multiple ways, and where the problematic reading did not occur to us. In those cases, we fix the issue as soon as it is brought to our attention. Many times, however, the complaint is awfully... finicky. To take a specific example from this week (and there are literally hundreds and hundreds like this over the years), we wrote a minor joke about whether or not Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo would make the Top 30 of our movie countdown. And we got multiple e-mails, some of them not-so-gentle, telling us that line had white supremacist overtones because of the Boogaloo Boys. We thought about changing the joke to Gleaming the Cube, but ultimately decided against it, taking the view that white supremacist a**holes cannot be allowed to appropriate and pollute whatever they want.

    And beyond the pickiness of the complaints is the tone. As we suggest, some of the Electric Boogaloo e-mails were very reasonable, along the lines of "Hey, just wanted to warn you about this possible issue..." Some of them, however, were not, and were more along the lines of "I'm disappointed you'd write such an obviously racist sentence." That's pretty much a full-frontal assault, and shows none of the care about word choices that is being demanded of us, which also makes it a wee bit hypocritical. Anyone who does a site like this, particularly if they put their comments e-mail address right at the bottom of the page, is going to get a lot of this, and so it doesn't affect us. We read the critiques, we make a decision, we move on. But a person who isn't used to it, and who is in the Fox bubble? Such a thing could have a profoundly negative impact on them, driving them far in the direction other than the one intended by their critic.

J.W. in Buffalo, NY, asks: More and more states have finished drawing their (gerrymandered) congressional maps. Where are the Democrats on voting rights reform? They can't have much more time left, since the midterm campaigns are starting soon. If they don't do anything, Democrats will lose the House next year before a single vote is cast, and be shut out of power for the rest of the decade, no matter what voters think. Why do Joe Biden and the Democrats, from Chuck Schumer to Joe Manchin, seem to be not bothered at all by this?

V & Z answer: It is simply not the case that the Democrats are "not bothered" by this. They've given serious time and attention to at least three major voting rights bills this year: the For the People Act of 2021 (H.R. 1), the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (H.R. 4), and the Freedom to Vote Act (S.2747). However, all have stalled when they came up against the Senate filibuster.

There is only so much the Democrats can do at one time, however, and so there is only so much that can be on the front burner. Right now, infrastructure is the focus. But once that's done, then voting rights will claim at least a portion of their attention, and likely a sizable portion. That said, nothing is going to happen as long as the filibuster exists in its current state. The Republican Party likes the status quo on voting rights, thank you very much, and isn't going to help change it, no matter how moderate or reasonable the changes might be. And, in turn, nothing is going to happen with the filibuster until Manchin and Sinema decide they are willing to support a change. Their Democratic colleagues don't want to push them too hard, but they've clearly been mounting a campaign of mild pressure. Earlier this month, for example, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) wrote an op-ed that concludes with the line: "No barrier—not even the filibuster—should stand in the way of our sacred obligation to protect our democracy." Since the readers of USA Today and Delaware Online do not have a vote on this question, and Manchin and Sinema do, you can figure out who that was meant for.

Manchin has been steadfast that he will not change the filibuster. But he was also steadfast that he'd be able to work out a compromise bill that would gain the necessary Republican support. The Freedom to Vote Act was that bill, however, and it got zero Republican votes. So, he is going to have to concede that the filibuster needs to be changed, or else he's going to have to concede that bipartisan change is not possible and that protecting voting rights isn't that important to him. Only he knows what his current thinking is. What Sinema's game is is a mystery.

The Democrats have also considered trying to squeeze some voting rights protections into the reconciliation bill, but that's a longshot because it will be very hard to persuade Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough that voting rights have a significant effect on the budget.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: You'd think that there would be an opportunity for a moderate Republican from the districts of Reps. Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). They would have a simple argument for the voters:

Rep. [fill-in-the-blank] isn't concerned with doing anything to make your lives better in this district. They spend all of their time whining and complaining about Big Bird and Dr. Seuss and doing nothing for you. I'm going to go to Washington with a laser focus on what is best for this district. Aren't you embarrassed by Rep. [fill-in-the-blank]? Our children are watching. Is this the example of leadership that we want them to look up to? [Fill-in-a-better-blank] for Congress? I'll bring civility and a focus on you back to Washington.

I'm posing this as a question because I'm curious of your thoughts as to whether there is a "lane" for such a candidate in a Republican primary. I'd also be interested in hearing from readers who live in these districts on Sunday.

V & Z answer: Maybe there is a lane. However, a lot of people who support those members have been persuaded that government is "bad." And so, a member who interferes with the functioning of government, and who openly disdains the government to the point of it being almost surreal, is doing something useful as far as those voters are concerned. Further, never doubt the power of "My representative understands people like me, and I like that."

In any case, if any reader lives in those districts, or near those districts, or in similar districts, we would also be interested to hear your thoughts.

T.W. in Norfolk, England, UK, asks: Donald Trump has spent the last year bellyaching that the election was stolen from him, that Joe Biden's win was entirely fraudulent, etc., etc., blah blah blah. If he's telling the truth (and I can't believe a legitimate president would ever lie) he is actually the winner of the 2020 election and he's president right now, and it's simply the nasty Democrats and the Deep State and an elderly lady in stilettos preventing him from exercising his power.

Now, I'm British and I don't have a Constitution within arm's reach, so I have to rely on a vague memory, but isn't there a two-term limit for President of the United States? I don't believe the Constitution says anything in particular about legitimate Presidents who are prevented from acting as President being exempt from this limit. Like pregnancy, you either are or you aren't. Therefore, if Trump should attempt to run in 2024, doesn't this mean that he's attempting something illegal by seeking a third term, seeing as he's been giving everyone the idea that he is actually the current but obstructed legitimate president? Wouldn't it be a conspiracy to commit—gasp!—fraud?

V & Z answer: "The Democrats ignored the Constitution when they illegally made Joe Biden the fake president, and so left me with no choice but to ignore the Constitution as well."

P.D.K. in Blaine, MN, asks: R.B. In Cleveland had a great point about the Democrats having a propaganda problem more than just a messaging problem. Historically, how has propaganda been successfully fought?

V & Z answer: There are two options, and we'll use the alleged teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as our example for discussing both.

The first, which was used during both world wars, is to respond in kind. In other words, the other side puts out propaganda, so you put out propaganda. In terms of CRT, that could mean that if Republicans keep harping on how it is being taught in schools, the Democrats respond by declaring that the anti-CRT activism is being driven by a super PAC that receives most of its funding from the Ku Klux Klan.

This is a lie, of course, and Democrats do not generally have the stomach for such outright assaults on the truth. Further, unlike the current iteration of the Republican Party, they do not have a friendly media establishment willing to help perpetuate such falsehoods.

That leaves us with option two. Propaganda is designed to play on the emotions, to stroke the receiver's ego, and to confirm their pre-existing biases. A frontal assault, then, is all but certain to trigger a defensive response and to cause the person to shut down. So, the approach—and this is what cult deprogrammers do—is to try to plant the seeds of doubt, and to hope that those seeds eventually grow into something.

In general, the best way to plant the seeds of doubt is through very gentle use of the Socratic method. If someone is in a tizzy about CRT, for example, you might ask them some of the following questions:

  • Do you think that racism has been a problem in American history?

  • If you agree that racism has indeed been a problem, what is the best way to address that with students, in your view?

  • What are your specific criticisms of CRT?

  • Have you spoken to any current or recent students about their experiences in the classroom? Were they taught lessons based on CRT, or on racism more generally? What were their feelings about those lessons?

  • If you learned that students were not being taught CRT, then why do you think the politicians keep talking about the subject?

As you can imagine, it is difficult to scale this approach to address hundreds or thousands of people. Not making things any easier is Brandolini's law, a.k.a. the bull**it asymmetry principle, which observes that "The amount of energy needed to refute bulls**t is an order of magnitude larger than is needed to produce it." In other words, even if the Democrats manage to defang CRT as an issue, it won't take much effort for Republicans to come up with a replacement.


B.J. in Boston, MA, asks: What, if anything, prevents a Republican House majority from censuring and kicking every single Democrat off all House committees? Note that neither "shame" nor "political consequences" are admissible answers since there clearly will not be any of either. What might the Democratic caucus do in response to such an event?

V & Z answer: If the Republicans regain the majority, then it is certainly possible for them to do this. The Speaker has control over all committee assignments (even if they generally abide by the input of the Minority Leader for assignments from the minority party) and motions of censure require only a majority vote. There would be relatively little the Democrats could do in the short term, except engage in various stunts designed to make life hard for the Republicans, like calling for constant roll-call votes to adjourn (a favorite trick of Marjorie Taylor Greene; it wastes lots of time).

It is unlikely that the Republicans would do this, however. First of all, it would require near unanimity, and this would surely be a bridge too far for some members of the Republican conference. Second, they would be giving the Democrats an engraved invitation to do the same thing once the blue team was back in control.

A.M. in Brookhaven, PA, asks: Since censuring Paul Gosar (R-AZ) has not seemed to have any effect, could Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) seek a restraining order against him, given that he is threatening her life in public? If so, could this prevent him from entering the House floor while she is there (and possibly prevent him from participating from Congressional votes)?

V & Z answer: It is theoretically possible. In fact, this very scenario is playing out right now in Michigan, as state Rep. Mari Manoogian (D) has secured a protective order against former boyfriend state Rep. Steve Marino (R) that, at the moment, could very well keep him from being on the floor to cast votes.

We don't think it is likely, however. What Gosar did is probably not enough to justify a permanent restraining order. And that is before we consider that the courts would be very leery of interfering with the functioning of Congress.

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: What is the most plausible path towards ending gerrymandering nationwide?

It seems like the elected officials who have the power to ban partisan redistricting, are also the ones who benefit the most from the practice. Are there any realistic options?

V & Z answer: We can see only two. The first is federal action, up to and including a constitutional amendment. It may seem impossible, but anti-gerrymandering laws are broadly popular among members of both parties, so it could happen. Recall that a sizable number of the post-Bill of Rights amendments address flaws in the electoral system that presented themselves.

The other possibility is that the matter gets put directly to the people, through the initiative/referendum process. Again, since anti-gerrymandering laws are broadly popular, passage is definitely a possibility. However, only 26 states have this option.

M.S. in Alexandria, VA, asks: I'm seeing a couple of news articles every week about one 1/6 participant or another being convicted and sentenced. It's usually a higher-profile case, and the coverage is all about how many months they'll spend in prison. I know at a state level, depending on the state, convicts often lose the right to vote even after they have completed their sentences. I'm curious if the same holds true for federal convictions. Will the convicted 1/6 participants be disenfranchised by the federal government? Or will it depend on the laws of their home state?

V & Z answer: It will depend on whether they were convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor, and also on the laws of their home state.

The federal government does not register people to vote, of course, the states (and D.C.) do. And the states are free to set their own standards for who can and cannot vote, as long as they do not run afoul of the Constitution or of other federal laws. Those states that do restrict felons' voting rights treat all felony convictions the same, whether they are from that state, from another state, or are federal.

Some states do treat some felonies differently from others, but those differences have to do with the nature of the crime, not the entity that imposed the sentence. As a general rule, however, here are the penalties imposed by the various states (and D.C.):

  • No effect; can even vote while in prison (2 states): Maine and Vermont (and also Washington, DC)

  • Can vote once prison sentence is served (21 states): California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia and Washington

  • Can vote once prison sentence and parole are served (2 states): Connecticut and Louisiana

  • Can vote once prison sentence, parole, and probation are served (16 states): Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin

  • Permanent loss of franchise (9 states): Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wyoming

Again, these categorizations are generally true, not universally true. For example, in Maryland and Missouri, you can permanently lose your right to vote for felony voter fraud, but not for violent offenses like murder. Depending on your perspective, that either makes all the sense in the world, or doesn't make any sense at all. Also, there are some states that offer opportunities to have the punishment lifted or overturned, either through some sort of administrative action, or through full renumeration of the financial penalties imposed by the court.


J.S. in Durham, NC, asks: I was reading in The New York Times about a new book, The Shattering: America in the 1960s, which documents and discusses the late fifties and sixties, and the tumultuousness of the Civil Rights Era and the Vietnam War.

This reminded me of something I have wondered about for several years: How did the political shift of the Republicans, once the party of Lincoln, and the Democrats, once the party who supported white segregationists in the South, unfold? It seems that it had already begun by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected, given The New Deal. But the shift, from my understanding, was not completed until Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Can you please fill in the holes for me?

V & Z answer: You already have the basic outlines, but here is a slightly more detailed narrative.

After the Civil War, Republicans dreamed of building a national coalition of white Northern voters and Black Southern voters. As it turned out, protecting the voting rights of Black Southerners was (1) a lot of work, and (2) not necessary in order to dominate national politics. So, after a decade or so in which the Republicans took the lead in ending slavery, and extending citizenship and male suffrage to Black Americans, the Party essentially turned its back on the freedmen and freedwomen, and left them to their own devices. Meanwhile, the Democrats were the party of white supremacists, so they weren't doing anything for Black Americans, other than targeting them for violence and trying to limit their voting and their other civil rights.

This was the situation into the 1930s—one national party apathetic and the other openly hostile. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, he was holding together a fraying coalition of Northern and Southern Democrats. He was therefore not in a position to be a crusader for civil rights or racial equality. However, he did things that really helped poor people, farmers, and laborers. Most Black people, in the 1930s, were in at least one of those groups. So, they were grateful for the New Deal. Further, Eleanor Roosevelt was less constrained than her husband, and was a more outspoken advocate of racial equality. Black Americans appreciated that, as well.

By the time Harry S. Truman became president in 1945, it was possible for a president to be a bit more assertive about civil rights, particularly if they had the credibility of being a sort-of Southerner (Truman was from northern Missouri), or if they had won a world war (as Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower could both claim to have done). And so, Truman observed that "My forebears were Confederates ... but my very stomach turned over when I had learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten." He desegregated the military, which could be done by executive order, and tried (without much success) to pursue a ten-point agenda of civil rights reforms called "To Secure These Rights." Harry S. was frustrated in the latter effort by intransigent Southern Democratic members of Congress.

When Eisenhower became president, he was leery of strong action on civil rights because he knew he had gotten the votes of a fair number of racial conservatives and he did not want to rock the boat prior to his reelection campaign. However, after 1956, he no longer needed to worry about reelection and, at the same time, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. So, Ike took strong action to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957, and he also signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1960 into law.

As of 1960 or so, the loyalties of Black voters were somewhat in the air. On one hand, they had been Republicans for generations, and the Eisenhower administration had done some good things. On the other hand, Republicans on the whole had not done much for Black people in close to a century, and Democrats had done quite a bit more between 1932 and 1960. If you examine the political loyalties of prominent Black Americans in the election of 1960, you will find that there was a lot of wavering and uncertainty going on. For example, Jackie Robinson liked Richard Nixon, but felt that the Eisenhower administration had acted too slowly and with too little enthusiasm on civil rights questions. At the same time, time, Robinson was unpersuaded that John F. Kennedy was committed to racial equality. Kennedy and Robinson engaged in a public dialog that eventually dragged the legendary baseball player into the Democratic fold, where he would remain for the rest of his too-short life.

JFK won the election of 1960, of course, and followed through on his commitments, most obviously taking strong action on behalf of the freedom riders in 1962. And don't forget, when Bobby Kennedy went down to University of Mississippi on Sept. 30, 1962 to integrate it at the point of a gun, he was not only the attorney general of the United States but also Jack's brother, who knew all about this and blessed it. At the same time the Civil Rights Movement had reached full bloom, and had turned into an incredibly effective instrument of legal and political activism. When Kennedy died in 1963, he was replaced by a man who knew how to get things done, and who was soon persuaded that time had come for strong action on the civil rights questions. Lyndon B. Johnson used his considerable skill to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, after being reelected, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. LBJ also pursued other proactive policies, like Affirmative Action, while at the same time doing things for poor/working people in general that happened to help Black people a lot (like, say, Medicare).

While JFK/LBJ embraced the Civil Rights Movement, the Republican presidential candidates of the era went in the opposite direction. In 1964, Barry Goldwater based much of his campaign on opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to other measures like forced integration. He wasn't a racist, as it turns out, just a libertarian and a states' rights fetishist. That distinction did not matter to Black voters, of course. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon ran a campaign in 1968 that was full of dog whistles as he tried to win the support of white, Southern Democrats who felt they no longer had a political party to call home.

So, by the 1970s, things had largely reshuffled. Most Black voters had shifted their allegiance to the Democratic Party, and most white Southerners and racial conservatives in the rest of the country had become Republicans (or would switch within the decade).

One thing worth noting: If Richard Nixon had won the election of 1960, then he would have been the one in office as the Civil Rights Movement reached its apogee. He was a shrewd political operator and was not overtly racist. So, it is entirely possible that he would have declared that he was building on the civil rights record of Eisenhower, and would have taken steps to reaffirm the alliance between the Republican Party and Black voters. In that case, the Democratic nominee in 1964 would have been left to try to rebuild bridges with white Southerners. So, things could very well be quite different today if not for that very critical election of 1960.

P.Y. in Upper Nyack, NY, asks: Robert Moses was born in the 1880's, when New York City was less than 1% Black, and started whacking away at New York City in the 1920's, when it was still only about 2% Black. A lot of outlets these last couple of weeks have been discussing how he ran highways through previously vibrant Black neighborhoods—and they always quote from one source—the Robert Caro biography. But my understanding of New York City history is that Black people mainly moved into the city in the 1960's—often establishing their neighborhoods in the low-rent districts around the highways that Moses had already built. Do I have it wrong?

V & Z answer: There are, in effect, two major "racist" claims in the Caro book. The much more controversial one is that Moses deliberately built overpasses low, so as to make it difficult for buses full of Black New Yorkers to visit public recreation facilities like parks and beaches. Caro made that claim based on three things: (1) that Moses regularly expressed racist sentiments, (2) that Moses' firm kept records of how many Black people visited various recreation facilities, and (3) that one of Moses' assistants, Sidney M. Shapiro, said that this was done. That is more than enough evidence for a book, particularly the words of Shapiro, since he was "in the know" and had no obvious motivation to lie.

After the Caro book was published, this particular claim came into question, including by Moses himself, who said he didn't do it. Historians and other scholars who have looked at it have also raised questions, pointing out that this would be a pretty roundabout scheme for achieving its alleged goals, and also that overpasses built in that time tended to be the same general height as the ones Moses built, and so he doesn't appear to have deviated much from standard practice. The upshot is that there is enough evidence for both sides of the argument that the claim cannot be considered "confirmed" or "debunked." Some people criticized Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg for repeating Caro's revelation this week, but Buttigieg was repeating in good faith something he read in a book, and cannot be expected to remain on top of historiographic debates like this.

The second claim of Caro's book is the one you're asking about, namely whether or not he displaced Black neighborhoods. On that point, there is no doubt, as Moses himself said he did it. In the same essay defending himself against the low overpasses, he wrote: "I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without moving people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs" and "Ninety-eight percent of the ghetto folks we moved were given immeasurably better living places at unprecedented cost. Usually a month after the last relocation not a letter of complaint was received." In Moses' time, "ghetto" almost invariably meant "poor, minority community" and often specifically "poor, Black community." So while he does not explicitly name any particular ethnic group, he does so implicitly. Again, one of us (V) can comment on the general idea of racist roads from personal experience again. After his family was forced to move from NYC due to one of Moses' roads, it moved to suburban White Plains. Not too long afterwards, "urban renewal" hit and a major road was built through the middle of the city's Black neighborhood. This wasn't Moses' doing, of course, since he had no power to route Westchester roads, but the local city planners obviously knew what was going on in NYC and took their cues from it.


T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ, asks: Why does the mainstream media cling to nostalgic ideas that were dead probably before most of them were born? I have a distinct memory of Tom Brokaw saying, after Al Gore's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 2000 in Los Angeles (where JFK also gave an acceptance speech in 1960), "Well, that was no JFK." I'm 60 and have no memory of JFK and have long resented the media's iconization of JFK to the detriment of whatever Democrat you choose to name. The media's infatuation with JFK bugs me to no end. Great, good, mediocre, indifferent, bad, or evil, the man is long dead. Must Democrats forever pine his memory? Are we that chained to the past? Move on, for Christ's sake!

V & Z answer: We will start with a question that (Z) uses in one of his lectures. Who or what is the first thing you think of when you read/hear each of these statements?

  • He was a scientific genius
  • He was evil
  • He was an honest politician
  • She was a great American
  • Name a fruit

We'll get back to that in a moment, but for now we'll tell you what these questions are trying to get at: archetypes. In both spoken and written communication, the most fundamental tension of all is effort vs. fidelity. That is to say, humans (and other species) try to communicate with as much precision as possible, while using as little energy as possible. Archetypes—widely-recognized embodiments of a particular concept, particularly a complicated one—are an effective strategy for navigating this communicative problem, because one can express a fair amount of meaning with a minimal amount of energy. Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation might recall the episode "Darmok," which features an alien culture that communicates entirely through archetypes and metaphors.

The use of archetypes, and also of widely known metaphors, is quite common in political commentary and analysis, as there are many occasions where such shorthand is very useful. And so references to JFK aren't really about him; it's just a quick and easy way of saying something along the lines of "a Democrat who is young, dynamic, charismatic, and great at public speaking." Recall that the mythology of JFK did not truly take hold until after he was assassinated; the whole "Camelot" thing was not used at all while he was alive, and was first mentioned in a Jackie Kennedy interview shortly after he died.

As to the statements at the start of this question, it probably will not surprise you to learn that roughly three-quarters of people respond to the first three prompts with "Albert Einstein," "Adolf Hitler," and "Abraham Lincoln." On one hand, we can guess, at least in part, how these men became the archetypical scientific genius, evil bastard, and honest politician, respectively. On the other hand, there are certainly some mysteries when it comes to archetype formation. Was Einstein really that much more brilliant than John von Neumann, Galileo, Marie Curie, Michael Faraday, Niels Bohr, Emilie Du Chatelet, Max Planck, or Al-Zahrawi? And yet, nobody has ever e-mailed us and said, "Nice analysis, Galileo," or "What's with the spelling, Curie?" Similarly, roughly 70% of Americans, when asked to name a fruit, will pick "oranges." Why? Hard to say, for sure.

That said, archetypes can change, or can be displaced. In 1970, the predominant answer to "She was a great American" was Betsy Ross. Today, it is Rosa Parks. Clearly, our understanding of what makes someone "great" has changed, and so our archetype has changed as well. Maybe one day, people will say "He is no Obama" instead of "He is no JFK."

C.S. in Linville, NC asks: Having been told unexpectedly that we are pregnant with our first child at age 38 and 40, I find myself contemplating the earth that our child will inhabit. Any thoughts and suggestions from parents out there? As a daily reader of this site I consider myself well informed and yet I view the world and feel quite bearish about the future of the humans.

V & Z answer: First of all: Congratulations!

Second: This week, of all weeks, seems a good week for some optimism (even if it may be hard to summon). So, if folks write in, we will run some of those responses, either tomorrow, or possibly on Thanksgiving itself.

N.C. in Baton Rouge, LA, asks: In Thursday's post, you covered 13 items. While there have been days where you write more words, this was a lot of individual items covered. What has been the highest number of items you published in a day? A week? Do you keep track of that?

V & Z answer: We don't keep track, though it's not too hard to go back and figure it out, at least for the year 2021. Thursday's post tied this year's mark for the highest number of items in a day; we also had 13 on January 8. The busiest week of 2021 was the week of January 11, when we had 43 items between Monday and Friday (though that week included the second impeachment, where we ran five items under one headline).

We may do a "2021 by the numbers" post next month, where we run down some stats for the year.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Nov19 McCarthy Shoots, CBO Scores
Nov19 Could the Senate Actually Avoid another Debt-Ceiling Showdown?
Nov19 One Day after Gosar Vote, He and Other Republicans Are Defiant
Nov19 RNC Chair Pushes Back against Trump, at Least a Little
Nov19 Well, That's Not Very Environmentally Friendly
Nov19 This Week in Schadenfreude
Nov19 Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Nos. 40-31)
Nov18 All But Three Republicans Vote in Support of Gosar
Nov18 Meadows Is on the Hot Seat
Nov18 Republicans Are Already Plotting Revenge for Bannon's Subpoena
Nov18 Trump Backs Another Challenger to Representative Who Voted to Impeach Him
Nov18 Why Do Voters Like Democratic Policies but Dislike Democrats?
Nov18 Infrastructure Bill Tries to Reverse Road Racism
Nov18 When Will the Voters Notice the Improved Infrastructure?
Nov18 Trump Blasts Broken Old Crow--Again
Nov18 A Loss in 2022 May Help the Democrats in 2024
Nov18 Another House Democrat Is Retiring
Nov18 Sarah Huckabee Sanders Is a Shoo-in for Governor of Arkansas
Nov18 Trump's Hotel in D.C. Will No Longer Have His Name on It
Nov18 Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Nos. 50-41)
Nov17 It's Debt-Ceiling Time... Again
Nov17 It's the Sixth Circuit
Nov17 SCOTUS Is Playing with Fire
Nov17 White House Set to Announce Diplomatic Boycott of 2022 Olympics
Nov17 Gosar Censure Vote Scheduled for Wednesday
Nov17 Speier to Retire
Nov17 Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Nos. 60-51)
Nov16 Biden Signs on the Dotted Line...
Nov16 ...And He Really Needs to Win the Lottery
Nov16 Bannon Surrenders, Is Released
Nov16 Welcome to Unpersonhood, Never Trumpers
Nov16 Beto Is In...
Nov16 ...And Leahy Is Out
Nov16 Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Honorable Mentions, Part II)
Nov15 United Nations COP26 Climate Summit Ends with a Fizzle
Nov15 Biden's Approval Continues to Sag
Nov15 Administration Members Talk about Inflation
Nov15 Redistricting Has Become Everyman's Game
Nov15 Nationalized Races for Governor Could Hurt Democrats Next Year
Nov15 Cawthorn Is Changing Districts
Nov15 Can A Gay White Man Beat a Straight Black Woman?
Nov15 Catholic Bishops to Meet Today
Nov15 Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Honorable Mentions, Part I)
Nov14 Sunday Mailbag
Nov13 A Sleeping Giant Awakens
Nov13 Murkowski Is In...
Nov13 ...And Cherfilus-McCormick Scores the Win
Nov13 Saturday Q&A
Nov12 Trump Buys More Time for Himself
Nov12 Does Joe Biden Have an Inflation Problem?