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      •  He's Guilty
      •  Saturday Q&A

He's Guilty

This is an item we really could have written a week ago, and still have been 100% accurate: Former White House advisor Steve Bannon is now convict Steve Bannon, as a jury found him guilty of contempt of Congress on Friday.

This outcome was inevitable. First of all, the feds don't go after someone in court unless they are nearly 100% certain of success. Second, it was pretty clearly an open-and-shut case: Bannon was summoned to appear before Congress, and he didn't show up. Third, Bannon's attorneys didn't even bother to put up a defense. One reason that someone might do that is to avoid testifying and thus being cross-examined. In this case, however, our guess is that Bannon wants to be a martyr, and so deliberately tanked the trial. If you're going down anyhow, might as well be stoic while doing it. Call it the Socrates approach.

The jury took 3 hours to reach its verdict. In most circumstances, that's very quick, though in this case, we are wondering what could possibly have taken them that long. Maybe they spent 2½ hours of that ordering and eating lunch. We weren't in the courtroom, of course, but we'd like to imagine that once the jurors returned to the jury box, the reading of the verdict went down something like this:

Bannon is going to appeal, of course. And he'll have about 2 months to go on his radio show and do his martyr bit before being sentenced by Judge Carl Nichols. Bannon already spent the entire day Friday appearing on right-wing programs and complaining about how he's the victim of the biggest miscarriage of justice in, oh, 2,000 or so years. The minimum sentence for contempt is 1 month; the maximum is 1 year, and he was found guilty on two counts. Bannon doesn't have a criminal record (in part due to a timely presidential pardon), but he is utterly unrepentant, and Nichols has already demonstrated his irritation with the defendant. Our guess is that he gets 6 months, though don't bet any money on that. If he times it just right, he and fellow defier-of-Congress Peter Navarro can while away the time playing bridge together.

This is the first 1/6-related conviction for an inner-circle Trumper. It wasn't directly due to the events of January 6, but it's a conviction nonetheless. Perhaps this will grease the skids a bit when it comes to going after other apparently guilty folks in the former president's inner circle, including the guy at the center of the circle. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

It would seem that the 1/6 Committee is accomplishing its goals, as the questions inbox was flooded with e-mails about the hearings and the insurrection.

Current Events

D.P. in Oakland, CA, asks: When Steve Bannon finishes his sentence, can the 1/6 Committee serve him another subpoena?

Also, on Thursday we saw Pat Cippolone turn to his attorney and then say "privilege" a couple of times in reference to his discussions with Donald Trump. Then afterwards we saw the MSNBC panel comment that he wouldn't be able to do that before a DOJ grand jury if criminal activity was involved. Why doesn't the same rule apply in the 1/6 Committee context?

V & Z answer: We had several questions along the lines of whether or not Bannon would be protected by double jeopardy if he was subpoenaed again (and refused again). And the answer is that double jeopardy applies to multiple prosecutions for the same criminal act, nor multiple prosecutions for violating the same statute. In other words, the 1/6 Committee is free to subpoena Bannon a dozen more times. And if he defies them all, then he'll be guilty of, and presumably put on trial for, a dozen more crimes.

As to Cipollone, the 1/6 Committee's hearings have many of the hallmarks of a criminal proceeding, but they are not an actual criminal proceeding. And so, the crime-fraud exception doesn't exist for a congressional hearing. Most obviously, perhaps, it is a judge that decides whether the crime-fraud exception applies. There is no judge in a congressional hearing to make that determination.

F.L. in Denton, TX, asks: In the event that the update to the Electoral Count Act passes the Senate and is signed by Joe Biden, would that put an end to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

V & Z answer: We don't see any reason that would be the case. The ECA update addresses the process by which a state communicates results to the federal government, placing that task solely in the state governor's hands. However, states would retain the right, enumerated in the Constitution, to determine exactly how those results are reached.

R.S. in Tonawanda, NY, asks: The updated ECA provides that slates of electors must be submitted by governors which, you wrote, would foil any attempt to submit rogue or fake electors. But what if a MAGA governor is in office in December 2024 (looking at you, Doug Mastriano), and submits his preferred slate under seal? What then? I haven't read the text, but isn't there still wiggle room for a governor to ignore the popular vote?

V & Z answer: No. The document by which the federal government is advised how a state has awarded its EVs is called a certificate of ascertainment. Under the new legislation, a governor's signature is necessary for the certificate to be valid, but it is not, by itself, sufficient. That is to say, if a MAGA governor submits a phony state of electors, then the document is still fraudulent, even if it is signed by that governor. Congress would be entitled to reject it, and the governor in question would be guilty of a federal crime.

K.B. in Madison, WI, asks: Last summer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) submitted the names of five Republicans for the Jan. 6th Select Committee. As we all know, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) rejected two of the five (Jim Jordan, OH; Jim Banks, IN) and in return, McCarthy quickly announced a boycott of the committee.

Now McCarthy is taking plenty of heat from Donald Trump and many others for that decision. Rodney Davis (IL), Kelly Armstrong (ND), and Troy Nehls (TX) would have remained members without McCarthy's (supposed) error. I'm aware those three House members aren't known as firebrands like Jordan and Banks, but no little else about them. In what way(s) would the presentations to date have been different if they remained on the committee, in your opinion?

V & Z answer: Davis is one of the more centrist Republicans, and Armstrong isn't much further right, which makes Nehls the Trumpiest of the three. Certainly, he's the only one of the trio to join with the 121 Republicans who tried to object to (some of) the electoral votes. He also voted against impeachment both times.

If these three had been seated, we don't actually think the hearings would have been all that different. Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) are running a pretty tight ship, and are not allowing the members of the committee to speak up at will (or, in fact, to say much of anything). So, it's unlikely that Nehls, even if he'd wanted to, could have done very much bomb-throwing.

The primary effect of having one or more Trump-friendly Republicans on the committee would be to keep every revelation from being a surprise. If the Trump wing of the Party knew what was coming, they would be better prepared to respond, or could even get out in front of it. But they don't know.

C.A.G. in Athens, GA, asks: I am confused about one aspect of the Secret Service's deletion of text messages relevant to January 6. I understand that it shouldn't have been done (without at least backing them up) and that the folks who did it should have known better (and probably did). That, in itself, is worthy of further investigation, internal consequences, and possibly criminal charges.

Having said all that, can't the Select Committee just request that the phone company provide a copy of the texts from the pertinent phone numbers? This seems like a problem with an easy fix. What am I missing?

V & Z answer: Cellular providers do not want to be in the business of storing text messages long-term. First, that raises the sort of privacy issues that aggravate many customers and activist groups. Second, the providers don't want to be constantly dragged into legal battles. Third, there are billions of text messages sent every day. Storing those, long-term, would ultimately be very difficult and costly. We'd be talking thousands of terabytes of data, all of which would have to be backed up. Consequently, of the nation's six largest cellular carriers, only Virgin Mobile (90 days) and Verizon (3-5 days) store text messages at all. The other four (T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint and Nextel) keep only metadata, and not the messages themselves.

We also had several questions about whether the federal government runs its own cellular service. We're not privy to the exact arrangements made by the FBI, Secret Service, and other law enforcement agencies, but it would be very impractical for them to have their own cell network, since they need nationwide coverage. Far more effective would be to do what they actually do, which is make sure that messages are heavily encrypted when sent over private companies' networks.

T.J.C. in St. Louis, MO, asks: I get that Joe Biden shouldn't interfere with the inner workings of Department of Justice or the Federal Reserve. But isn't he directly responsible for the goings-on at the Secret Service? If the Service is behaving badly, impeding an investigation, or destroying evidence, can't Biden fire those responsible and appoint people who will get to the bottom of it?

V & Z answer: Technically, yes. But most people in the federal government value the independence of the Department of Justice and federal law enforcement, and view presidential mucking around as a no-no. If an investigation needs to be conducted, or people need to be fired, that's a decision for the AG, or the Directors of the FBI/CIA/USSS, or some other person in that command hierarchy.

Joe Biden, by all indications, believes in this way of thinking. So did Barack Obama. Some presidents did not agree, most obviously Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. But see where mucking around in the DoJ got those two.

M.O. in Arlington, VA, asks: Who was/were the mastermind(s) who originated and orchestrated the "seven-part plan" to keep Trump in office? The 1/6 hearings demonstrated that Trump was a willing participant/useful idiot for sure in the process to keep him in office. However, I feel that important pieces of the "plan/planning/planners" process have yet to be revealed. Can you please fill in the gaps—people/timing/places/reasons—for how the seven-part plan evolved and failed?

V & Z answer: First of all, we have been persuaded by the evidence the 1/6 Committee has shown that Donald Trump was in full command of his faculties in late 2020. He may not be as mentally sharp in his 70s as he was in his 40s, but the outtakes of his 1/7 address, to take one example, make very clear that he was keenly sensitive to nuance and detail, and that he was not in some sort of mental daze.

As to the "brains" that helped Trump plot, plan, and scheme, it seems clear that John Eastman was the key player. Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell and Jeffrey Clark, among others, egged him on, but none of them seems clever enough to have concocted the overall scheme.

And while Liz Cheney and other 1/6 Committee members have referred repeatedly to the seven-point plan, they've never actually spelled it out. However, the Committee did issue a press release that does so. Here it is:

  1. President Trump engaged in a massive effort to spread false and fraudulent information to the American public claiming the 2020 election was stolen from him.

  2. President Trump corruptly planned to replace the Acting Attorney General, so that the Department of Justice would support his fake election claims.

  3. President Trump corruptly pressured Vice President Pence to refuse to count certified electoral votes in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the law.

  4. President Trump corruptly pressured state election officials, and state legislators, to change election results.

  5. President Trump's legal team and other Trump associates instructed Republicans in multiple states to create false electoral slates and transmit those slates to Congress and the National Archives.

  6. President Trump summoned and assembled a violent mob in Washington and directed them to march on the U.S. Capitol.

  7. As the violence was underway, President Trump ignored multiple pleas for assistance and failed to take immediate action to stop the violence and instruct his supporters to leave the Capitol.

Certainly, Trump played his role for all seven parts. The ones that did not work out for him—numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5—are the ones that involve action from other government officials, virtually none of whom were willing to play ball.

K.F.K. in CleElum, WA, asks: I live in forest fire country. I commented to my husband after this week's 1/6 hearings that while I would dearly love to see our former president go down for his crimes, it seemed to me that it would be similar to finding and punishing the person who started a forest fire through their careless behavior. The person would be punished, but the fire would still be raging.

In Friday's post you brought up something that terrifies me more than the potential Trump might run again for president—the violent fire, if you will, of racist, homophobic, us against them sentiment that the GOP seems unwilling to untether itself from. I would love your thinking on this—what, if anything, do you think it will take for the GOP to sever ties with their far-right elements? Because if they do not, and even if we do manage to elect another Democratic president, I remain terrified of where this is all going.

V & Z answer: There are, always has been, and always will be, violent and extreme elements in American society. That's not going to change. And so, it's really quite simple; the Republicans will stop kowtowing to those elements once it no longer works for them to do so. At the moment, it's still possible for most Republican politicians to keep their extreme voters and their non-extreme voters because the non-extreme voters are willing to hold their noses and look the other way due to their dislike of Democrats or their desire for lower taxes or their desire to outlaw abortion or their love of guns or whatever else. Once those folks stop doing so, then the current Republican coalition will not be viable, and the Party will have to reinvent itself.

It is plausible that the activities of the 1/6 Committee, and any prosecutions that take place, will force meaningful numbers of non-extreme Republican voters to accept that their Party has a real problem, and that they simply must withhold their support until that problem is fixed.

G.A. in Berkeley, CA, asks: The January 6 hearings have demonstrated Donald Trump's intent to remain in office despite having lost the 2020 presidential election. If the insurrectionists that he led, in taking over the Capitol, had succeeded in kidnapping or killing much of the Congress, they still would have been put down. I read once that the support of ten percent of the population can suffice for a coup or revolution. What conditions are necessary, and what is the minimum percentage of popular support needed to successfully take over a developed country from within?

V & Z answer: There are lots of studies like this; the most famous (by Erica Chenoweth) finds that it's only necessary to mobilize 3.5% of the population to pull off a coup. However, she also observes that it's only nonviolent movements that ever reach that level of mobilization.

For our part, we're not enthusiastic about trying to put a precise number on a phenomenon that is so unusual and so nebulous. But... we would point out that the closest thing the U.S. ever had to a coup was the Civil War. In that case, 5.5 million people in a relatively discrete geographic area (i.e., white Southerners) nearly managed to impose their will on the other 22 million people (i.e., Northerners and enslaved people). So, it seems to us that 20-25% of the population, if in the same basic area, is about what it takes to pull off a violent coup. And note that while it's true that only 1.1 million of those 5.5 million were armed soldiers, nearly all of the rest were acting in some sort of support role.

L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, asks: On Thursday, you had some (what I would consider) optimistic items (update to the Electoral Count Act, 1/6 Committee hearings having a positive impact, etc.). Then, later in the evening I read this item in The Atlantic: America's Self-Obsession Is Killing Its Democracy.

Needless to say, I found it very discouraging and, dare I say, almost hopeless. I think the author makes a plausible case that the United States democracy is well on the road to dysfunction, if not outright death.

What is your take on this? Are we doomed?

V & Z answer: As (Z) writes this, the 1980s show The Golden Girls is on the TV. Like most TV shows, that one acts as a time capsule for the era that produced it. And if you watch more than a couple of episodes, you're all but certain to encounter a joke, comment, etc. about how Japanese businesses are taking over America.

The point here is that Americans seem to have a particular tendency to obsess over perceived existential crises. Sometimes it's been the "invasion" of foreign-owned business interests. At other times, it's been the communists, gay people, secret societies, immigrants, alcohol consumption, nuclear war, Islamic terrorism, and labor unions, among others.

And that brings us to our second point. Some of these crises are real, others are imagined. But even with the real ones, Americans do not tend to take action until the threat has reached DEFCON 1.

Eventually, the United States will suffer its final existential crisis, and will cease to exist. But is that crisis upon us right now? Is the decline and fall of the country imminent? History says the odds are very low.


J.O. in Columbia, MD, asks: Do you think the U.S. would benefit from having something like Prime Minister's Question Time in the U.K.? It would give everyone a designated chance to showboat without having to contrive show votes or publicity stunts?

V & Z answer: We would be in favor of that, but there is zero chance that the would-be subject of such questioning (The president? The speaker of the house?) would agree to it. There is far more risk of them saying something harmful rather than something helpful, especially given the propensity for the opposition to ask gotcha questions.

C.F. in Nashua, NH, asks: Is it possible that the very controversial bills designed to make Republican Senators squirm have simply been delayed? We know that the biggest impact to voters would probably be 1 to 2 weeks before the election (see Comey, James). Do you think, strategically, it would make more sense to wait until October to bring these bills up for a vote in the Senate?

V & Z answer: This seems very plausible to us. We could certainly imagine Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announcing in October that the upper chamber has gotten so much done that it will just have enough time to squeeze in votes on these two bills.

D.K. in Miami, FL, asks: I've thought about this for a long time. With democracy in peril and abolishing the filibuster potentially serving as the only elixir, why don't Democrats change course for the 2022 (probably too late now) or 2024 election, and promise to cut taxes for the upper class in addition to everyone else, even if they have no intention of doing so? I know plenty of people who claim they are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, yet they still pull the (R) lever at the polls even though women's lives are now increasingly in danger, minority voting rights are being trampled on, and gun violence has reached untenable levels. If the Democrats ran well-crafted campaigns in part based on lowering taxes for all classes, similar to how you mentioned Republicans always pretending they would legislate stricter abortion laws upon having the power to do so, I bet swaths of wealthy folks would finally cross the line and vote (D).

V & Z answer: If DNC Chair Jaime Harrison were to call us up and run this by us, we would tell him that we think it's a bad idea.

To start, a lot of lefty/progressive voters harbor suspicions, often verbalized, that the Democrats and Republicans aren't really all that different, and that both primarily serve their wealthy/corporate masters. Promising tax cuts for the rich, no matter how reasonably worded, would serve to affirm those suspicions and to drive the lefties away from the Party. It would also make a lot of non-progressive Democrats (say, labor unionists) howl.

Meanwhile, there is a very real possibility that some (many?) folks who say they are voting Republican for fiscal reasons aren't telling the whole truth, and are only saying that because it's a socially acceptable justification for their vote.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: The right-wing echo chamber on Fox likes to portray President Biden as a confused old man who has lost his marbles. I'm not a therapist and have no business diagnosing him from afar, but I still have to wonder if they aren't wrong. Witness what seems to be a great deal of indecision coming from the White House (such as kicking the student loan forgiveness can down the road again and again). Consider the slow and (in my mind) weak response from the White House following Dobbs and all of the other horrifying SCOTUS decisions. And then there is this clip from Stephen Colbert's monologue a couple of nights ago. The relevant portion starts at about 5:15. If you don't care to watch, Biden goes on for an uncomfortable minute and a half, meandering through an unintelligible story about growing up in Scranton, his father losing his job, coal, and I don't know what else. He was incoherent and, frankly, it was hard to watch. (BTW, folks on the right need to shut up about comedians being unfair to Trump. Colbert absolutely skewered Biden here.)

Here is my point and my question. I have to wonder if Biden is still up to this very stressful job. Perhaps he is trying to hang on until after the midterms so that he can then resign and hand the presidency over to Vice President Kamala Harris. Given that she is not universally loved and that Harris ascending to the presidency would be a gold mine for right-wing media, waiting until after the election makes sense. I know the prediction business can be fraught, but what do you think about this? Do you find this to be plausible, possible and/or likely?

V & Z answer: First of all, we want to push back against the notion that Biden has lost his marbles. We have both heard plenty of lectures/presentations/talks from people who were plenty young and plenty smart, and yet who were incomprehensible. Extemporaneous speaking is difficult, Biden doesn't have all that much experience with it (compared to, say, someone who has delivered 10,000 lectures), and things are tougher if you have some verbal issue (such as stuttering, like Biden) or if you're tired or if you're not feeling well. Don't forget that, while it was apparently not known at the time, the President was suffering from COVID when that clip was recorded.

Similarly, we don't think that the slow responses from the White House speak to anything other than an administration that is cautious and methodical. It may be that four years of Donald Trump, where major policy decisions were made in minutes and announced via Twitter, have conditioned us to be impatient. In historical context, Biden's pace is considerably more normal than Trump's was. It may not be the most politically advisable pace, as we've written numerous times, but it does not suggest dysfunction to us.

And we are very doubtful that Biden has decided he's not up to the job and is plotting his exit. If he really was persuaded that he just can't do it anymore, we think he would be decent enough to step down immediately, and not leave the country vulnerable for 3-4 months just for political purposes. Also, if Biden is dragging the Democratic ticket down, there's a pretty good argument that the Party would be better served by him quitting now rather than after the elections.

The thing about mental incapacity (e.g., dementia) is that it's a Catch-22: People who are legitimately dysfunctional are (largely) no longer in a position to make that judgment. That's why the Twenty-Fifth Amendment exists.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: Why has Kamala Harris become nearly invisible? She seemed eager for the job and ready to go—and nothing happened. Or maybe I just haven't been looking in the right places. What has she done as VP?

V & Z answer: She is mostly used as an envoy to various meetings, events, and other such things. That's pretty standard VP stuff. For example, she's heading to Indianapolis on Monday to lobby the state legislature not to outlaw abortion.

If you don't hear much about her, it's because there just isn't much to say about VP errands like these.

P.N. in Austin, TX, asks: Do you think Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) will run for president?

V & Z answer: It's a near certainty he'll form an exploratory committee. He may even go so far as to be a candidate in the first few primaries/caucuses. But we'd be stunned if he lasts any longer than that. Even Republicans aren't buying what he's selling.


B.A. in Rosemount, MN, asks: You have pointed out that the secession of a state from the Union is not going to happen. But can Congress, the Supreme Court, and the President suspend a state's membership if the state government was unrepentantly corrupt, passed many laws that were unconstitutional, or just ignored federal law all together? If this were to happen, what measures could the federal government use to bring the offending state back in line?

V & Z answer: What you are describing is basically what happened during Reconstruction. After the Civil War, white Southerners flouted numerous federal laws, particularly those designed to protect the freedmen and those that prohibited high-ranking Confederates from holding office. So, the Congress effectively suspended the Southern states' statehood and ordered the U.S. Army to occupy and govern those states. To rejoin the Union, those states had to meet a list of conditions, most obviously ratifying the Thirteenth—and later Fourteenth, and later Fifteenth—Amendments.

Absent a second civil war, it is not probable that this will happen again. But if it did, then the Congress could make readmission contingent on, say, acceptance of legal abortion, limits on the Second Amendment, and protections for voting rights.

M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: How can a state legislatures pass laws restricting the movement of its residents, either inter or intra-state? Historically, with the exception of enslaved people and the internment of Japanese Americans, have state or federal governments attempted to prevent the free movement of the population? Possibly during infectious disease quarantines? Other than that, how can nullifying such a basic right even be contemplated, let alone enacted and enforced?

V & Z answer: Prohibitions on the free movement of population, including the Fugitive Slave Acts and Japanese internment, were the work of the federal government and not the states. States can deny entry, and many did during the COVID pandemic, but they can't control movement out of the state.

That said, the anti-abortion states aren't really trying to stop interstate movement. What they are trying to do is criminalize violations of state law that take place beyond state borders. It won't be easy to find a way to do that.

C.C. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: Joe Biden's COVID diagnosis got me thinking about the politics of presidential succession. If Biden were to succumb from his infection, Kamala Harris would of course become president and under the terms of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment would appoint a vice-president who would take office upon confirmation by a majority of the Senate (and the House). Isn't it reasonable to assume that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would hold up confirmation of Harris' choice so that the Democrats couldn't pass any legislation or judicial appointments?

V & Z answer: We do not think that's a solid assumption.

First of all, McConnell was very sensitive to the optics of monkeying around with the Supreme Court seat that should have gone to Merrick Garland. That's why he invented the McConnell Rule, so that it looked kosher. Keeping the vice presidency open would be many magnitudes more visible, and he and his conference probably wouldn't be willing to deal with the fallout.

Further, the only way McConnell might block a VP pick right now would be via filibuster. There is currently no carve-out for VP nominations, since there have only been two since the Twenty-Fifth Amendment was adopted (Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, and they were both easily confirmed by the Senate; 92-3 for Ford, 90-7 for Rockefeller). However, if McConnell tried to block a VP, we think that even Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) would be OK with creating a new carve-out.

And finally, there's this: At the moment, if the vice presidency were to be vacant, then next in line would be Nancy Pelosi. Surely McConnell and the other Republicans would prefer some nice, bland VP like Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

J.T. in Greensboro, NC, asks: Unlike some "bipartisan" legislation that only picks off one or two members of the other party, the Respect for Marriage Act won the support of nearly a quarter of the Republican caucus. Moreover, gay marriage is—by and large—a wildly popular policy. A Gallup poll last year found that 70% of Americans, including 55% of Republicans, support gay marriage.

The result in "the people's chamber" is decisive (62%), so if the bill fails in the Senate, it will be a clear example of bad faith minoritarian rule in pursuit of the electoral realpolitik (demographics more likely to vote tend to be those more opposed to gay marriage).

So, in the tradition of the readership of this site proposing pie-in-the-sky solutions to the filibuster I'll propose one of my own: Could the rules be written so that a bill that passes the House with a supermajority (say, 62%) cannot be filibustered?

I'm sure there are reasons why this will never happen, and you'll explain, but it seems eminently reasonable to me at the moment.

V & Z answer: Is it possible? Yes. The filibuster has no Constitutional basis, and exists only as one of the (many) rules of the Senate. The senators are free to rewrite it in any way they see fit. They can kill the filibuster for House bills that pass with a 60% majority, or House bills that pass on a Thursday, or House bills that contain no instances of the letter 'Q.'

It's never going to happen, though, because the majority of current senators are filibuster fetishists, and because neither chamber has ever had any interest in ceding power to the other chamber.


E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: You wrote, "either the [Supreme] Court moves to moderate its rulings and bring them more in line with public opinion or the opposition ultimately accepts the decisions and moves on." Could you please give some examples of each and why you think those outcomes unfolded each way?

V & Z answer: The most famous instance of the Supreme Court course-correcting came in the 1930s, when there was much public anger over the striking down of New Deal programs. Under threat of court packing, and with the country in the midst of a national crisis, the Court thought the better of its staunchly right-wing jurisprudence, and started allowing the more tolerable New Deal programs to stand. It did not hurt that a couple of the most conservative justices retired and were replaced by Franklin D. Roosevelt-appointed liberals.

And the most famous instance of the Court getting out ahead of public opinion was in the 1950s, when its early pro-civil rights decisions (e.g., Brown) were certainly not in line with majority sentiment. However, the decisions were pretty obviously correct (Brown was 9-0, for example), and the Civil Rights Movement did an excellent job of making the case for why Black Americans deserved equal citizenship, and that the white Americans trying to stop that were acting in a wrongheaded and anti-democratic fashion.

D.M.C. in Seoul, South Korea, asks: The questions from B.D. in Bainbridge Island remind me of something I've been thinking about for a while, particularly since Donald Trump and Xi Jinping's 2017 discussion of history. I wanted to hear the perspective of an academic historian. So: How do historians deal with defining the concept of a country or civilization and how old it is?

I often hear/read that some country (particularly China or Korea) is much older than the United States. But, that strikes me as, at the very least, misleading. If we're talking about a government, I would argue that the United States (1789) is older than both the PRC (1949) and the RoK (1948).

If it's about some sort of cultural legacy, then has China really inherited that much more from say the Han Dynasty than the United States has from Rome?

V & Z answer: To start, the word "civilization" is a relatively recent invention (300 or so years ago), and was initially used to refer to all of humankind. It's only the last 100 years or so that historians began to speak of multiple civilizations.

There are dozens and dozens of essays trying to pin down what a "civilization" really is, but it turns out to be no easier than defining what is and what is not a rock and roll song, or an assassination, or pornography. There's a lot of judgment involved, and a process by which (the sizable majority of) scholars reach something of a consensus. That said, most definitions include a shared culture (including cultural monuments), a somewhat static land area (with cities), a shared economy, and a basically continuous political system (even if that system has undergone big changes).

That said, in the classroom, it would be unusual to unheard of to present, say, 5,000 years of Korean history as one continuous "civilization." The term is generally used for broad survey courses (Western Civilizations, World Civilizations, etc.) to suggest that the various nation-states being discussed are roughly comparable entities.


S.K. in Buda, TX, asks: I was a bit chuckled to read that "readership is heavy on male Democrats over 30" as that describes me as well. I was curious how you know that statistics of your readership and if there's been anything over the years that has surprised you about those statistics?

V & Z answer: We did a survey a couple of years back; you can see the results here. That said, we should probably do it again, since we have better tools now that might produce more accurate results.

And the biggest surprise is how many international readers there are. The site was founded by an American expat, so we're not terribly shocked when other American expats read the site. But we are surprised by the large number of folks who are citizens of other countries, and are just interested in U.S. politics.

A.P. in Kitchener, ON, Canada, asks: You wrote recently about attending a seminar on creating an inclusive classroom and being unhappy with the response to the question: "What would you suggest we do to make sure that students from more conservative and/or sheltered backgrounds also feel included?"

As a teacher/professor myself I was wondering if you or your readers have good suggestions on how to do this? I must admit while I think I have done a good job on creating an inclusive classroom, I may be creating one type of inclusion by inadvertently excluding some students.

V & Z answer: One useful strategy, perhaps the best we've found, is to make clear on the first day that all perspectives are welcome, and that if a student has concerns, they should feel free to bring them to our attention. It is not so easy for a student to go toe-to-toe with a professor, though, so (Z) has a form on all of his course webpages that allow for anonymous comments/concerns.

You also have to get pretty good at dealing with... tricky situations. For example, (Z) once had a student whose essay about the causes of the Civil War boiled down to "It happened because that is how God wanted it." It took some time to choose the right words to explain to that student that while that may or may not be true, and while many people who lived through the Civil War felt that way, it cannot be proven or disproven with evidence, and so isn't the sort of argument that one makes in a history class.

We have a few other ideas, but think we'd like to hold off and throw the question to the other teachers who are reading..

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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