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Saturday Q&A

It's a particularly eclectic week this week, with appearances by Nikita Khrushchev, AMLO, George W. Bush, John Fetterman, LeBron James and... Charles Martel. Or, if you just want to read the answers that are going to cause trouble, search for "genocide" and "whataboutism."

Current Events

J.H. in Racine, WI, asks: Since Ketanji Brown Jackson is now confirmed, if one of the current justices should die or resign before July, could she immediately take their place? Or can she only take Stephen Breyer's place?

V & Z answer: She is confirmed to "a seat" on the Supreme Court, not to "Stephen Breyer's seat." So, if one comes vacant before he steps down, then she could take it, yes. The only exception is if the chief justiceship were to come open. There's actually nothing in the rules that says that chief justices have to be specially nominated to that post, but that's customarily how it's been done.

S.S-L. in Norman, OK, asks: What will happen if the U.S. enters a shooting war with Russia? My brain goes immediately to nuclear fallout and the end of life as we know it. What say you?

V & Z answer: We think the deployment of nuclear weapons is extremely unlikely. First, because few people, even if they are psychopathic power-mad dictators, have the stones to order a nuclear first strike. Second, because there is absolutely no way that a nation that fires nukes can avoid an absolutely devastating counterstrike.

There are, we would say, two relevant historical analogues here. The first is the Korean War, in which the U.S. was fighting the U.S.S.R. indirectly, and China directly (after October 19, 1950). By the time the first shots were fired in Korea, the U.S., and the U.S.S.R. were both nuclear powers, with the Soviets having tested their first bomb in 1949. Despite the fact that the Chinese could not return a nuclear strike (they did not develop a bomb until 1964), the U.S. did not deploy nukes, despite having done so just 6-7 years earlier in Japan. Either the U.S. could not abide the thought of launching a(nother) nuclear strike, or it was concerned that the Russians, though not directly involved, would return fire.

The other analogue is the Cuban Missile Crisis, when both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev had plenty of political cover for launching a nuclear strike against the other, and plenty of advisers telling them to do just that, and few advisers telling them that backing down was plausible. And yet, they both backed down, unable to accept the consequences of ordering a nuclear strike.

P.L. in Denver, CO, asks: I am wondering if a U.N. green line (similar to the one in Cyprus) could be established between Ukraine and Russia, whenever we see the shooting stopped. As I write this, I am wondering if it needs to be even further established for other former Soviet Republics who are at threat from Russia.

V & Z answer: It's certainly possible, but we think it unlikely, for three reasons.

First, Vladimir Putin is, by all indications, very reluctant to have NATO members (at least, medium- or large-size NATO members) located on Russia's border, seeing that as a threat to national security. That being the case, he is not likely to agree to having actual U.N. troops (which necessarily means some number of U.S. troops) permanently stationed along the Russian border.

Second, Volodymyr Zelenskyy likes to project strength. That is not surprising, since strength and vigorous masculinity are rather significant parts of Ukrainian (and Russian) culture. Any arrangement that involves a permanent babysitter, for lack of a better term, might not sit well with him and with the Ukrainian people.

Third, and finally, maintaining something like this is pretty costly for the member states that contribute. And that's just talking about the 112 miles in Cyprus, or the 160 miles between the two Koreas. A Ukrainian green line would surely have to be longer than those two, probably on the order of two or three times longer. And that means two or three times more expensive. The U.S. and other nations are not likely to be eager to commit to that.

What it amounts to is this: The option is always on the table, but would probably be considered only if all other possibilities had failed.

R.L.D. in Sundance, WY, asks: A while back, you wrote at length about how wars, forced sterilizations, and boarding schools didn't clear the bar of genocide when we're talking about the U.S. government against the various Native Peoples of North America. This week, you wrote:

If Biden has evidence that the Russians' goal is to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian—and the President of the United States certainly has better information than we do—then that would indeed clear the bar for genocide. Even if the purpose is not to kill all Ukrainians, and instead to subsume them into Russian culture, that still clears the bar. The fellow who coined the term "genocide," Raphael Lemkin, was just beginning to explore the issue of cultural genocide when he died unexpectedly, and other scholars have taken up the banner since then.

So my question is, Huh!? Would you like to revise your previous analysis? Because the evidence of U.S. efforts to subsume Native peoples into American culture abounds.

V & Z answer: No, we would not like to revise our previous analysis.

To reiterate, "the various Native Peoples of North America" are not one monolithic group. That term refers to a large and diverse collection of tribal groups that often had very different experiences between 1492 and 2022. One cannot proceed as if what happened to, say, the Chumash is the same as what happened to, say, the Comanche.

Second, with that caveat, we noted that the treatment of some tribes clearly constitutes genocide, writing:

On the other hand, it is entirely possible to think about more specific genocides committed against indigenous groups by American governments (federal, state, local). There may not have been one big genocide, but possibly there were dozens of smaller ones. And that is where the California natives come in. They were closely enough related that it's not unreasonable to think of them as one cultural group (or a small handful of cultural groups). And when Americans arrived en masse in California, in 1848-49, their greed for gold put aside nearly all of their humanitarian impulses. Further, the state government and the national government were both under the leadership, for a decade, of people who shared a similarly negative view of the Native Americans. And so, from 1850-60, the U.S. army traveled up and down the state, engaging in "seek and destroy" missions with an eye to eliminating the native population. They were horribly, terribly, distressingly successful: A population of 150,000 individuals was reduced to 20,000 in a little over a decade.

The California genocide checks all the boxes: scope, intent to kill, and motive. It also unfolded over a short period of time, and it was conducted under government auspices. Not long before Joe Biden acknowledged the Armenian genocide, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) acknowledged the California genocide, declaring: "That's what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that's the way it needs to be described in the history books."

The Chumash, by the way, are among the tribes covered by those paragraphs.

Third, and finally, your question suggests we are being inconsistent. However, in the original item, which is linked above, we specifically allowed for the possibility that Native Americans were victims of cultural genocide, even mentioning some of the very acts you listed in your question:

Now, one could make the case that there were elements of cultural genocide in forcing the natives off their ancestral lands, killing their food sources (e.g., the American bison), imposing the English language, etc. That's one reason we left some leeway in our original statement, though even cultural genocide fits the experience of some tribes much more than it fits the experience of others.

In short, there is no disagreement between what we wrote this week and what we wrote back in October.

E.F. in Brussels, Belgium, asks: I read here and there that Russian actions in Ukraine amount to genocide. While I am beyond horrified at what is happening (massively terrorizing, maiming, raping and killing of innocent civilians by the Russian army), is it possible to qualify it as genocide? This may, of course, depend on whether Russia is more intent on destroying Ukraine and the Ukrainians, versus being intent on conquest, which may not be easy to determine.

V & Z answer: There are a fair number of people who interpret the phrase "not a genocide" as "not a big deal." That is not the case. Crimes and atrocities committed in the context of a war, whether that war is declared or not, are always a big deal. All Raphael Lemkin was trying to do when he coined the term "genocide" was to direct people's attention to a possible extra layer of badness, one that makes the crimes and atrocities all the worse. A crude comparison would be "murder" versus "murder with torture." They're both very terrible crimes, it's just that the latter is extra depraved and so is treated with an extra level of seriousness.

Moving along, in December of 1937 and January of 1938, the Japanese inflicted the Nanjing Massacre (also known as the Rape of Nanjing) on China. At least 200,000 Chinese people were killed in six weeks, and all the other crimes you list were also committed with distressing frequency. And yet, nobody speaks of the Japanese genocide of China. Is that because Chinese lives are not as valuable? Is it because that country has a population so large it can "afford" to lose 200,000 people? Or is it because the commission of war crimes, even utterly depraved ones, at a large scale, is not enough to constitute genocide?

Obviously, we favor the latter explanation, and Lemkin would have as well. So, questioner, we would say you are entirely right that the question here is one of intent. If the Russians are killing, raping, maiming, and otherwise terrorizing the Ukrainian population in an effort to cause Ukraine's surrender and to turn that nation into a vassal state, then it's not genocide. If the Russians are trying to erase Ukrainian culture, or to erase the Ukrainian people, then it is. Note that, either way, the Russians are guilty of war crimes, and should be held accountable. They probably won't be held accountable, mind you, but they should be.

There are some people, including Joe Biden, who feel they've seen enough evidence of Russian intent to call this a genocide. We haven't seen enough evidence to feel confident in that conclusion, but we freely admit that the President has considerably more information at his disposal than we do. After all, he has the CIA, and all we have are two nosy dachshunds.

And now, to save time, here is the comments e-mail address.

D.A. in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, asks: It occurred to me that some clever airline could introduce maskless and masked sections on flights, or even masked and unmasked flights.

Masked flights would come with a hefty surcharge or bond, which would be refunded or converted into flight vouchers for future flights. Thus, if someone flew on a masked flight and took off a mask and then refused to put it back on they would forfeit the money.

If the refunds were targeted the correct way, it could make the flight effectively cheaper after the refund for those who remain masked. Thus, the market would encourage mask wearing. And the Republicans would, I'm sure, trust the market?

My question is this: Would this be legal and, if so, is it something the administration could propose?

V & Z answer: We are not in the airline business, and so we can't give you a great answer to all parts of your question. However, we'll tell you that the air in an airplane is recirculated, so having a masked section and a maskless section would be pretty pointless. It's gotta be all or none. We'll also guess, given how cutthroat the airplane business is, the airlines would not appreciate the overhead involved here, or the loss of angry anti-mask customers. So, we doubt the Biden administration would ever propose this.

That said, if one or more airlines decided to go in this direction, it's probably doable. We don't know about bonds and refunds, which might be problematic, but nearly all rental car companies require a credit card in order to rent a car, and they usually put a $500 hold on the card to cover any damage the person might do to the vehicle (or any other expenses they might incur, like not filling up the gas tank). We don't see a reason that the airlines couldn't do the same thing—passengers have to pay with a credit card, have a $500 or $1,000 hold placed on the card, and if they don't behave on their flight, they get charged that $500 or $1,000.

F.J.V.S in Acapulco, GR, Mexico, asks: Regarding your item on last week's vote-of-no-confidence election in Mexico, as you said, nobody won. And as you reasoned, the exercise was a waste of resources. I am a diehard follower of Juan Trump AMLO, just because he fights the establishment, which is extremely corrupt (sound similar?). But I dislike some things about his administration, like this election charade. Nonetheless, my support for him will not wane for a long time.

I am curious in knowing about any comments you received, in order to figure out the political leanings of your Mexican readers.

V & Z answer: We didn't hear too much about that item, but if there are Mexican readers out there who would care to write in, we'll be happy to run those comments.


B.C. in Farmingville, NY, asks: I have been surprised as to the near continual decrease in Joe Biden's approval rating. The economy seems like it is booming by me, with tons of retail construction and jobs hiring at $15+ an hour. Unemployment rates continue to drop, real estate is booming, coronavirus cases remain comparatively low, and everyone's investment accounts are doing very well. Also, gas seems to have stabilized in the upper $3/gallon in my area, which isn't that bad in a historical sense. The Ukraine war is also going Biden's way. Regardless of this, I keep seeing the inflation being compared to how bad it was in the early 1980s, and the claim that this is going to be doom and gloom for the economy. The news, and the Internet, both jump on as soon as they see the stock market go down a little bit as signs of the next recession, but ignore that we have been doing quite well overall.

Is inflation so bad as to drag down the other gains in the country, as well as Biden's approval rating? Basically, what I am asking is: Does one negative indicator such as inflation offset everything else that seems to be a positive?

V & Z answer: We've thought a lot about this, and we still have plans to finish up a series of pieces exploring the matter in detail. But that's probably going to have to wait until the school year ends.

Anyhow, for now, we'll offer three theories as to what's going on:

  1. The "pros" you point out—jobs, wages, 401ks, home prices—all put money in people's pockets. The negatives you allude to—inflation, gas prices—all take money out of people's pockets. Studies show that, for most sports fans, the happiness they experience when winning isn't as great as the unhappiness they experience when losing. Maybe, at some basic level, "money is being taken out of my pocket" makes people much more unhappy than "money is being put into my pocket" makes them happy.

  2. Most of the things that are increasing people's wealth are encountered fairly rarely. Most people either don't have a house or, if they do, don't sell their house more than once in a decade. Most people who want a job are already employed or, if they're not, they get a job and keep it for months or years. Many people don't have a 401k or a stock portfolio, and the ones who do likely don't check the balance all that often, since doing so daily or weekly is a ticket to madness. On the other hand, if bread is up to $3/loaf, or beef is up to $8/pound, or peanut butter is up to $6/jar, that's something that people will encounter regularly, perhaps weekly or more often (especially if they are fans of peanut butter and jelly hamburgers). So, consumers get more reminders of the negative economic impacts, even if the $200 more they spent on bread and beef this quarter is far less than the $1,000 their 401k increased in value.

  3. The media coverage of the Biden administration tends to be very negative. Maybe that is because negativity attracts eyeballs. Maybe it is because after 4 years of hammering Donald Trump, they are trying to show how "fair" they are. Anyhow, the negative coverage might be creating a narrative that works to the administration's detriment.

That's what we've got. If readers have other theories, we'd be happy to hear them.

K.F. in Framingham, MA, asks: In your post "Maybe the Democrats Won't Be Wiped Out in November", you cited data and historical trends that did not necessarily portend a "shellacking" for the Blue Team come November. That said, if you were a proud Democratic soldier looking to fight the good fight, if the Democrats are unable to hold both, what would you say is the most important chamber to win? And if the answer is the Senate, which races should Democrats target most? Should they play more offense or defense?

V & Z answer: If the Democrats hold the House and not the Senate, there would convey a few advantages, but we don't think they would be especially valuable. It is easier to get laws through the House, due to the lack of a filibuster, and so the Democrats could pass a bunch of laws meant to highlight Republican inaction. However, they're already doing that right now, and what has that gotten them? They could keep Joe Biden from being impeached for political purposes, but since would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is already putting the brakes on such talk, impeachment is probably not much of a concern, and even if it does happen, it could rebound to the benefit of the Democrats. The House also has the exclusive privilege of originating revenue bills (i.e., new taxes), but what are the odds that a tax the Democrats support gets through a Republican-controlled Senate?

On the other hand, the Senate has at least three powers that would be highly relevant, we think. The first is that it gets to confirm presidential appointments, including Supreme Court justices. The second is that it gets to approve treaties. And the third is that it gets to conduct impeachment trials.

The confirmation of appointments alone is more than enough to make the Senate more valuable to the Democrats than the House. On top of that, if Biden's domestic agenda is stonewalled by House Republicans, then he can turn to foreign policy, where he has considerable expertise, and possibly make some treaties on global warming or peace in the Middle East or the expansion of NATO. And finally, if an impeachment does happen, control of the Senate would allow the Democrats to highlight what a charade it is.

So yes, the answer is the Senate. And the Democrats should play a judicious combination of offense and defense. They have four seats that are potentially in danger this year, in Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Our sense is that Nevada and Georgia are the most endangered, so those should get big-time resources, and the other two should get medium-time resources. Then, in search of insurance and a possible working majority, the blue team should commit considerable resources to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, as well. They should not, however, pull a Hillary Clinton and start chasing longshots like Missouri, or even Ohio, unless something happens that puts those states legitimately in play (like Eric Greitens getting nominated in the former).

P.M. in Currituck, NC, asks: You have written phrases such as "voting with Biden" or "voting with Trump" on more than one occasion, and it is a term I have also encountered in other media. But is it correct? What does it actually mean, since the President never votes at all? I have never encountered a satisfactory explanation for the use of this term, and was hoping you could shed some light on it.

V & Z answer: When it comes to legislation that actually passes both chambers, it's easy to figure out what side the president is on, because he either signs it or vetoes it. In the special case where legislation passes the Senate 51-50, but not the House, it's fair enough to assume that the VP voted in a manner consistent with the president's position. And if legislation fails to pass one chamber (or both), the president often makes a public statement of some sort about the legislation. Using these three tricks, it is possible to figure out where the president stands on most bills that come before Congress (although not all), with a pretty high degree of certainty.

On top of that, the majority of Senate votes are not on legislation, but on whether or not to confirm presidential appointments. It's pretty safe to assume that the president supports his own appointees, and so a vote to confirm can be counted as voting with the president and a vote to reject can be counted as voting against him.

C.P. in Silver Spring, MD asks: I'm having trouble understanding the Republican Party's long-term strategy. One of the tendencies I've noticed about modern elections is bigger voter turnout when there's an obvious target to vote against (George W. Bush in 2006, Barack Obama in 2010, Donald Trump in 2018). If the GQP's gerrymandering shenanigans lead them back to power, won't that just make them a target for the next round of elections? Going further, if they try to alter election results and somehow succeed, wouldn't that make them an even bigger target that the public would turn on even quicker and more intensely?

V & Z answer: We've pointed out several times that the GOP is not playing much of a long game these days, as they pander primarily to demographics that are shrinking (e.g., Baby Boomers, evangelicals) and they pursue policies (e.g. harsh anti-abortion laws, voter ID) that would seem to give the Democrats something to rally around. What's going on? As with the question above, we have three theories for you:

  1. The people making these decisions are hoping/expecting that "things will take care of themselves," with, say, increased numbers of blue-collar or Latino voters eventually replacing the Boomers and evangelicals.

  2. The people making these decisions have concluded, possibly correctly, that the current Democratic base is not especially responsive to the "Can you believe what the Republicans did?" line of attack. After all, it's not like the Republican Party paid for the Merrick Garland fiasco, or for letting Donald Trump try to extort Ukraine, or, apparently, for looking the other way when it comes to the 1/6 insurrection.

  3. The people making these decisions are concerned only with their own, immediate political future and don't care if the next generation of Republican politicians ends up holding the bag.

Again, that's what we've got. And again, if readers have other theories, we'd be happy to hear them.

J.L. in Los Angeles, CA asks: My conservative friend blames Barack Obama for ratcheting up rhetoric in demonizing the other party for political game. While my friend freely admits that Donald Trump has made things many times worse, Trump didn't start the fire; Obama did: "Obama is the first president who really ridiculed half our country—the half that didn't vote for him—over and over again and he stoked social issues that were highly charged and very dangerous if not handled properly." He argues that before Obama, Bush and Clinton and their predecessors were actually quite respectful of the other party. They disagreed (often passionately and acerbically), but they didn't vilify and demonize like Obama and Trump. Is Obama really responsible for taking America down this path into pervasive political pugilism?

V & Z answer: This is, if we may be blunt, nonsense.

Politics, by its nature, encourages a certain amount of whataboutism. That's particularly true of American politics, where much of the system is based on tradition and on the expectation of honorable behavior, as opposed to being spelled out in print. It's much easier to get away with [X] if you can claim that the other side was guilty of [X] first.

That said, the modern Republican Party, aided by its friends in the media, has weaponized whataboutism to justify both its policies and its rhetoric, and it's not remotely symmetrical. Keep in mind that, to borrow Obama's phrase, "elections have consequences." Also keep in mind that it is the job of politicians to engage with political issues and to offer their perspective on those issues. Advocating for a political position is not, in and of itself, divisive (unless that political position scapegoats some group). Divisiveness depends on how that position is presented and, in particular, how those who disagree are treated. There is a world of difference between "I understand why some people oppose abortion, but I think it's a woman's choice" and "I am pro-choice, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot."

It became a major talking point among the right that Barack Obama was "divisive," and he was often described as "the most divisive president in [some lengthy period of time, like 50 years]." He was also frequently described as "racist" and "the most racist president in [some lengthy period of time, like 50 years]." However, if someone who says that is pressed for specifics, they almost invariably fail to deliver any specific examples of substance. And if they do provide examples, those examples are taken out of context or are misrepresented.

We will give you a high profile example of this. Back in 2018, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), in a textbook display of whataboutism, took exception to Barack Obama criticizing Donald Trump for divisive language. And so, Rubio unspooled a lengthy string of tweets highlighting examples of Obama's divisiveness. Here is one of the tweets from that string:

This was clearly not an attack. It is plain that Obama was trying to communicate empathy for the populist elements of the American population, the same folks who (when he said that) would go on to support Donald Trump.

This is also true of the most "divisive" Democratic statement in recent memory, namely Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" comment. Here's the whole bit:

I know there are only 60 days left to make our case—and don't get complacent; don't see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment and think, "Well, he's done this time." We are living in a volatile political environment.

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. (Laughter/applause) Right? (Laughter/applause) They're racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people—now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks—they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.

But the "other" basket—the other basket—and I know because I look at this crowd I see friends from all over America here: I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas and—as well as, you know, New York and California—but that "other" basket of people are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but—he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Maybe it is wrong for a presidential candidate to condemn any American, even racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. That is a question where opinions will vary. However, even if one thinks that is wrong, it is clear that Clinton's overall purpose was to express empathy for a portion of Donald Trump's base—people who almost universally loathed her—and to make some version of a "we're all Americans" argument.

So, if you want to tag Hillary Clinton as being divisive, due to the deplorables bit, then that's your call. But before that, you have to go pretty far back to find a Democratic president (or even a Democratic presidential nominee) who could reasonably be described as divisive—that is, villainizing some segment of the American public. Certainly not John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, or Hubert Humphrey. Maybe Lyndon B. Johnson, although he probably kept that stuff to himself. Maybe Harry S. Truman, who tended to say intemperate things about people he disagreed with (though he also tended to target other politicians).

Meanwhile, since the Ronald Reagan years (and probably before), the Republicans have extracted enormous political benefit out of villainizing some large segment of the population, not only opposing what those people do, but making them into "bad people" for doing it. This was done through dog whistles for several cycles, such as with Reagan's "welfare queens." It was much more out in the open by the time of George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and the use of gay marriage as a wedge issue. And then Donald Trump came along and blew the doors off, dispensing with any semblance of restraint.

This is not to say that individual voters—private citizens—on both sides of the political aisle are not guilty of divisive behavior. Read the comments section of any remotely political website if you'd like evidence. However, your question is about leadership. And when it comes to leadership, Donald Trump is miles ahead of any other president when it comes to divisiveness. A future historian might also be able to write a book 50 years from now entitled Republican Presidents and Divisiveness: From Reagan to Trump. But they just wouldn't be able to write the same book if it was Democratic Presidents and Divisiveness: From Carter to Biden, because the evidence just isn't there.

Incidentally, this is far from an academic question for us. We really do try to be fair in our assessments of the news, Monday-Friday, and in our answers to questions on Sautrday, and in our selection of letters on Sunday. But we get a fair bit of very negative, often very personal, feedback, usually from the right side of the political aisle, where we have to think pretty carefully how to proceed, and whether the feedback is worth our time and consideration (or, in the case of the Sunday mailbag, the readers' time and consideration).

To take an example, so that we're not just speaking in generalities, last week we ran a letter from reader R.L.D. in Sundance about strategic voting. And in it, R.L.D. observed that both parties have their issues, but that Democrats usually manage to come up with candidates who aren't awful. Referring to this year's primaries, R.L.D. wrote: "I still trust the Wyoming Democrats to avoid nominating criminals and/or clowns more than I do the Republicans, so that's the party I plan to vote with in the upcoming primaries. If it comes down to it, I'm prepared to launch my own campaign for a Republican nomination if necessary to bring some intelligence and integrity to the process."

This produced a message to the comments mailbox, addressed to R.L.D., and listing "good things to say about the GOP." We're not going to identify the author, but it was a long list of talking points about the Republican Party, like "They are against the policies that have created the record inflation we're experiencing (such as spending trillions of dollars by the Biden administration)" and "They are for energy independence. In fact, we WERE energy independent until Biden took us backwards on that. Instead of buying oil from Russia, Iran, and so on, the GOP is for expanding oil production at home."

As noted, we want to include conservative voices in the mailbag, so readers get exposed to different perspectives. On the other hand, we don't need to provide a free platform for propaganda, and these disingenuous talking points veer pretty far in that direction. Further, we don't want to waste readers' time with stuff they've heard a hundred times before. Oh, and the bar one has to clear for us to run a 500+ word message, which this one was, is pretty high. That message better be J.L.J. in San Francisco- or D.E. in Lancaster-level good. Anyhow, in an effort to try to salvage something for the Sunday mailbag, we responded to this e-mailer: "Is this really a good-faith message? Do you actually believe that all these assertions are fair and are truthful?" That resulted in a bunch of name-calling, starting with:

Yes. Now do I expect ultra-woke liberals such as yourself to agree with my assessment? Absolutely not.

And, after we responded that an immediate resort to name-calling is instructive when it comes to the strength of the argument, this:

So now your website is so incredibly liberal that you won't even tolerate a semi-conservative VIEWPOINT. I hate to break it to you, but I'm very independent. And as an independent, I can tell you that everyone I know is voting anti-democrat this year because of the things I listed below. In a two-party system, anti-Democrat equals GOP. You can get angry and shake your fist to opposing points of view all you want, but just remember this conversation on election night while you and your woke buddies are wondering how the Democrats lost so badly. The backlash is coming.

We think this is a pretty good example of the same dynamic that gave us the "But Obama did it first" argument. This reader (well, probably a former reader now) not only perceives the pieces we write (and the letters we run) as having a political slant, they've also decided that they represent an attack on conservatives/Republicans/everyone to the right of Karl Marx. And so, that justifies a counterattack, and one that is nasty enough that you would not likely see it in a face-to-face interaction. And justifying that counterattack involves making several assertions that are, we would say—although readers can decide for themselves—of dubious factual merit.

One last thing: There are thick partisan bubbles on both sides of the aisle, such that people can and do get repeated affirmation of problematic beliefs and behaviors. If you hear "Barack Obama was nearly as divisive as Donald Trump" one time, then maybe you don't take notice. But if you hear it 50 times, then it must be true, right? You can see evidence of that insularity in this brief snippet: "everyone I know is voting anti-democrat this year..." Talk about shades of Pauline Kael (and yes, we know that in her case, the remark was misinterpreted).

Once again, to save time, here is the comments e-mail address. We're not drinkers, but we'll have to remember to pour ourselves a stiff orange juice before sitting down to read the messages in the morning.

R.T. in Arlington, TX, asks: I hate it when I miss out on the cool kids' lingo. Why are you putting the trademark symbol with "True Believer"?

V & Z answer: It's not a cool kids' thing. It's a subtle bit of snark, implying that to Donald Trump, his followers are nothing more than a commodity to be exploited.

J.Z. in Santa Rosa, CA, asks: In your answer to a question about the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate election, you asserted that the Democrat most likely to win the general election "is almost certainly John Fetterman." Do you have polls or other data to support that?

I understand that Lt. Gov. Fetterman is the front-runner in the primary, and will be happy to support him in the general, but it's not at all clear to me that he would be a stronger candidate than Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA). I'm very curious about how you've arrived at near certainty about this.

V & Z answer: There are a few polls showing that Fetterman does 3-4 points better against potential Republican nominees than Lamb does. Not many, but a few. And there are none—at least, none that we are aware of—showing the converse.

Beyond that, we are reminded of Abraham Lincoln's observation in the early months of the Civil War: "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." Adapting that a bit, a Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania certainly hopes to have some independents/moderate Republicans on their side, but they must have the Democrats. It is pretty clear that Fetterman excites Democrats much more than Lamb does, and high levels of Democratic turnout are the single best path to a Democratic victory in that election.

The second best path is "win some independents/moderate Republicans," and the hypothetical ability to do so is the argument for Lamb. But there aren't as many of those votes available as there are low-engagement Democratic votes and, besides, it's not clear that Lamb actually has the edge here, since Fetterman appeals to the sort of blue-collar white voters that have been drifting away from the blue team in the past few elections.

Add it up, and it sure looks like Fetterman is the stronger general election candidate.

P.R. in Saco, ME, asks: Is there any chance John Fetterman could run for and win the presidency in 2024 (assuming he wins in Pennsylvania)? He has an image that seems to speak to both Republicans and Democrats.

V & Z answer: The odds are not good. In fact, the various books aren't yet giving odds on him at all. And that's in a world where they are giving odds on such luminaries as Candace Owens (50-to-1); Jeff Bezos (66-to-1); Tulsi Gabbard (80-to-1); Bruce Campbell (whose primary selling point appears to be that he looks like Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT; 100-to-1); LeBron James (120-to-1); Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (125-to-1); Kayleigh McEnany (150-to-1), Ben Shapiro (200-to-1) and Will Smith (250-to-1). And let's not have any snarky remarks about that last one, unless you're looking to get slapped.

The first problem is that the 2024 ticket is probably already set, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris giving it another go. And if one or both of them step aside, they are likely to throw their support to a non-Fetterman candidate. Further, running for president really takes multiple years of networking and fundraising and laying of the groundwork, and Fetterman can't do that right now because he's busy with his Senate run. There's a reason that people like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) basically take up residence in either Iowa or New Hampshire 3 years before a presidential election takes place.

This is not to say that a future Fetterman presidential bid is impossible; he's an intriguing candidate of a sort that does not come along often. That said, let's see if he can earn that promotion to the Senate and, if so, how he does with it. Sometimes, "outside the box" candidates just keep climbing (e.g., Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter). Sometimes, they come falling back to earth (e.g., Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura). We will also say that Fetterman feels like someone who would be tapped as a VP candidate before making a presidential run.

J.E. in Boone, NC asks: I found this article by Leah Hunt-Hendrix very interesting and compelling. She suggests that the Democrats should not tack to the center/right but advocate an "inclusive style of populism" that promotes "demanding the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share and the rules of the game get unrigged." These are popular issues among Americans but something I doubt the GOP will embrace. Additionally, she suggests cancelling student debt would go a long way to address the needs of an important Democratic base—again, not something the GOP is likely to embrace.

Much of this sounds like things that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT; too old and a certified Democratic Socialist), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA; probably too old), and John Fetterman (probably not experienced enough) have been saying for quite some time. Unfortunately, it seems that President Biden either isn't getting the message or else isn't getting it across. My question is this: If Biden decides not to run again in 2024, who do you think in the Democratic Party can be the presidential candidate to embrace this message of inclusive populism and win the White House?

V & Z answer: Two caveats. First, lots of people write articles arguing that "The best kind of candidate for political party [X] just so happens to be the kind of candidate I like." Leah Hunt-Hendrix is a pretty well known progressive, so consider her recommendations with that in mind. Second, as we note in the previous answer, it's probably a bit late to launch a 2024 presidential campaign. So, the three names we're going to give you probably make more sense for 2028:

  1. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA): Since he joined the Senate, he's actually had the most liberal voting record of any member. He's also Mexican American, and might just bring in some of those Mexican-American votes that the Democrats are drooling over.

  2. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA): He's also been very liberal, particularly for a Southerner and an evangelical. In fact, he's been the fifth-most liberal senator this term. In addition, he is enormously charismatic, a prodigious fundraiser, and he'd be able to retain most of the Democratic Party's Black voters (who tend to be moderates). Warnock knows something of the ideas Hunt-Hendrix is advocating, since there's much overlap in the ideological underpinnings of "inclusive populism" and those of the Civil Rights movement. Warnock, of course, occupies the pulpit that once belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr., and his denomination (the Progressive National Baptist Convention) strives to uphold the ideals of King and of the movement.

  3. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH): Sometimes, voters find aggressive policy proposals to be more palatable if they come from a milquetoast source. Brown is plenty progressive, but he's also pretty subdued and, unlike our other two suggestions, he's a white guy. Not a wild-eyed, tussled-haired, atheistic-former-Jew white guy, like Sanders, but a probably-wears-cargo-shorts, I-bet-he-eats-at-Cracker-Barrel, didn't-I-see-him-at-last-week's-Little-League-game? white guy. Maybe that is what it takes to keep some of the blue-collar types from freaking out. Also, Brown would have a decent chance of winning the swing state of Ohio, and possibly carrying other key Midwest states.

Incidentally, the answer that probably occurred to many readers is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). However, she's gotten so much of the Hillary Clinton treatment (i.e., the right-wing media portraying her as an incarnation of Satan) that she's probably unelectable. If you want a progressive representative to carry this banner, we'd probably direct your attention to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who is more experienced, more pragmatic, a skilled backroom negotiator, and hasn't gotten one-tenth of the right-wing attention.

A.L. in Osaka, Japan asks: Question about canceling student debt. The main argument against cancellation is that white working-class would be resentful. However: (1) Would they really get mad? The Republicans always give away large unpaid for tax cuts but they still keep voting Republican; (2) ;ots of working class whites have kids in college and they need the cancellation; and (3) didn't Donald Trump prove that pissing off people actually earns you points.

V & Z answer: There's no way to be sure until it happens, but there is a deep undercurrent of anti-intellectualism among Americans, and there is a deep distrust of universities among many who currently vote Republican (sometimes even with people who went to college, or who have kids in college). Plus, today's Republican politicians (and their media allies) are really good at weaponizing things like this. So, we would guess a student-loan amnesty would indeed trigger a lot of outrage. The question, from a political standpoint, is if that outrage would be offset by gratitude among young people, enough to turn a lot of younger non-voters (or occasional voters) into frequent Democratic voters.


T.B. in Tallahassee, FL, asks: Has anybody sat on the Supreme Court of the United States who lacked a law degree?

V & Z answer: This question was supposed to be answered last week, and although we addressed the first portion of the question that was asked (about hypothetical Native American appointees to the Supreme Court), we neglected to answer this portion. So, without further ado...

Law degrees were largely unknown in the United States before the 1830s or so, and were not common until the early 20th century, give or take a decade. And so, there have been many Supreme Court justices without a law degree, including all of the justices on the first iteration of the Court, not to mention the first eight chief justices. Melville Fuller (chief justice #8, served from 1888-1910) was the first chief justice to have any academic legal training whatsoever (six months at Harvard), and Edward Douglass White (chief justice #9, served 1910-21) was the first chief justice to have an actual law degree (from Tulane).

In total, of the 116 justices appointed to the Supreme Court, only 51 (44%) have had a law degree. Nearly all of those served in the last 80 years or so. The most recent person to be confirmed without a law degree was James F. Byrnes (served 1941-42), while the most recent person to sit on the court without a law degree was Stanley Forman Reed (served 1938-57).

M.G. in Indianapolis, IN, asks: Could you explain state residency? Like, if someone got pregnant and traveled to Illinois and used an address of a relative, and then traded in their Kentucky driver's license for Illinois license? Perhaps it would go by the location where the baby was conceived?

V & Z answer: There really is no concept of state citizenship, especially since the Fourteenth Amendment asserted the primacy of national citizenship, and made clear who was entitled to that citizenship.

There is, of course, state residency. Each state has rules about exactly what it takes for a person to qualify as a "resident" of that state, so as to determine responsibility for certain liabilities (like taxes), but also eligibility for certain privileges (voting, running for office, cheaper tuition at state schools, etc.).

In the U.S., the courts of state [X] are expected to respect the decisions of courts in state [Y]. However, these abortion laws that would punish women for crossing state lines to obtain an abortion, based on the notion that the women and their unborn babies are "citizens" of their state and under the jurisdiction of their home state's laws no matter where they go, are taking that to a new level. And, as we wrote yesterday, there are going to be countermoves from blue states. In the article we linked, for example, it was observed that California is likely to pass a bill that will prohibit California courts from hearing or enforcing civil judgments issued in other states against abortion providers. Similarly, bills that grant instant citizenship/residency to pregnant female visitors (or, at least, to their fetuses) are likely.

There's also one other issue: If an 18-weeks-pregnant Kentuckian goes to, say, Illinois, and comes back a few days later and is no longer pregnant, Kentucky will need to prove that state law was violated, and that there was no threat to the life of the mother, and no spontaneous miscarriage. Good luck getting that evidence from Illinois.


J.H. in Boston, MA asks: Can you expand on your aside that Charles Martel was a far-right French leader? My general impression is that it doesn't make much sense to view politics from before the rise of democracy and secular humanism and human rights through a left-right lens. What does it mean to be right- or left-wing in the medieval period?

V & Z answer: The U.S. left-right spectrum, which isn't necessarily all that illuminating even when considering modern American politics (it doesn't work great with Trumpism, for example), works even less well when transposed to Europe, or when transposed to past generations. And if you do both (Europe and past generations), particularly if the number of generations you're going back is something like 50, then it really breaks down.

Which is to say, that remark was mostly tongue-in-cheek. We could have gone with a more recent leader, like Philippe Pétain or even Napoleon Bonaparte, but that was likely to generate complaints that those folks weren't really right-wing. So, we went with Martel—which did not, as it turns out, stop numerous readers from writing in with objections.

To the extent that you can compare someone from 1,000 years ago to politicians today, however, we do think "far-right-wing" actually does describe Martel pretty well. He was ultra-nationalist, ultra-Christian, and ultra-militaristic. That maps pretty well to "neocon." And there are modern far-right groups that use his name, most obviously France's anti-Arab Charles Martel Group.

Z.C. in Toronto, ON, Canada, asks: Can you recommend a good English-language biography of Mikhail Gorbachev?

V & Z answer: There are some writers of biographies who have established a particular niche. For example, Walter Isaacson writes very good books about major figures in the history of science and technology, having published volumes on Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci. And guess what? There's a well-regarded author whose specialty is... former Russian leaders. That would be William Taubman, who penned a well-regarded book about Nikita Khrushchev, and followed that with Gorbachev: His Life and Times (2017). The book is 880 pages, so make sure you are really interested in Gorby before you buy it.

Alternatively, Gorbachev has—like Jimmy Carter—been a prolific writer since leaving office, and his works have all been translated into English, including his memoirs. So, you could peruse his body of work, and pick what interests you.


D.D. in Portland, OR, asks: For this week's "This Week in Schadenfreude," your target was a business—CNN+—rather than a person. Are you trying to expand the personhood of businesses beyond Citizens United vs FEC?

V & Z answer: Nope. Just trying to keep that feature from getting boring. We could easily do "loudmouth Republican member of the House says dumb/offensive thing, gets slaughtered on Twitter" every week. In fact, we could easily do "Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene says dumb/offensive thing, gets slaughtered on Twitter" every week. But wouldn't that get boring? So, we try to find things to focus on that you might not expect, like streaming services or ship names.

S.B. in New Castle, DE, asks: Your passion for politics is obvious from the amount of time you both put into this website. I wondered, when did that spark first become a real flame for each of you?

V & Z answer:

(Z) got started early thanks to politically interested relatives, and then in college he took a number of classes with prominent scholars of politics and/or prominent former politicians, and also worked at the university newspaper.

(V) didn't have any relatives who were interested in politics. They knew Ike was president in the 1950s and that was about it. But, (V) was a grad student at Berkeley in the 1960s. When your campus is attacked by helicopters so the governor (Ronald Reagan) can score political points with his base, you tend to notice. (V) was also active in politically adjacent ways, including being a volunteer lobbyist in the state Senate trying to protect San Francisco Bay. He helped get state senators to vote for the BCDC law that now protects the Bay. Fundamentally it says that the area of the Bay can't change. So a developer who wants to fill in the mud and build a shopping center has to buy and tear down another shopping center of the same size and turn it into mud.

After college, (V) hibernated until 2004, when he started this website.

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