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No cops were charged with Breonna Taylor’s death. This is how the system was designed.
Demonstrators gather outside the US Department of Justice before marching to the White House in a call for justice for Breonna Taylor on September 23. | Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images People took to the streets Wednesday night to call out systemic injustice. People across the country are outraged that no police officers were charged with killing Breonna Taylor — but many couldn’t be shocked. Those who felt blindsided by the grand jury’s decision haven’t been paying attention. This year alone, the cries of protesters have made it very clear: You cannot reform a system that is working the way it was designed to. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron underscored this reality when he delivered the news on Wednesday: “My job, as the special prosecutor in this case, was to put emotions aside and investigate the facts to determine if criminal violations of state law resulted in the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life.” Jon Cherry/Getty Images Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announces the grand jury’s decision in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor on September 23. In those words, Cameron suggested that the law itself places Taylor’s life below the “duty” of the police officers who entered her property on March 13. The law makes it clear that because the officers were defending themselves, it was justified for Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly to fire his weapon into a Black woman’s apartment six times, while detective Myles Cosgrove simultaneously shot his weapon a whopping 16 times, unleashing the fatal shot that would end Taylor’s life. The police were justified in their actions because the law, and those sworn to uphold the law, made it so. While a criminal indictment in the killing of Taylor might have felt like victory for some, she should not have been killed in the first place. The only justice would be Breonna Taylor still being alive. Brandon Bell/Getty Images Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, poses for a portrait in front of a mural of her daughter at Jefferson Square park on September 21. For Breonna’s family, and for a society that claims it wants to do better by Black lives, questions linger: How many years behind bars would have been sufficient retribution for Taylor’s life? What would the arrest of Brett Hankison, Mattingly, and Cosgrove really mean for the hundreds of other cops who have taken the lives of other Black people just this year? What would it mean for the families of the victims whose names haven’t risen to national prominence? These are questions America is grappling with as we consider what is justice in a criminal system that has been systemically cruel to Black lives. Breonna Taylor became a meme this year. It was impossible to scroll through social media without seeing an image pegged to the words “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” People plastered her name on T-shirts and counted the days since she had been shot dead. Meanwhile, Tamika Palmer, her mother, traveled around the country to speak on the sanctity of Black lives, and protesters urged lawmakers to defund the Louisville Police Department. People tried to hold all of these interests: The system, working as designed, needs to be dismantled while simultaneously bringing justice for a young Black woman. Arrests may have seemed like a concrete action, but many knew deep down inside they weren’t coming. There was no way to get justice for Breonna because she was already dead. That people took to the streets once more Wednesday from Washington, DC, to Louisville to Portland also seemed inevitable. Protests largely remained nonviolent: In New York, people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in solidarity and gathered outside the Barclays Center chanting, “What’s her name? Breonna Taylor! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” In Louisville, where tensions have been high for months awaiting the attorney general’s announcement, hundreds of protesters were arrested and two police officers were shot, sustaining non-life-threatening injuries. Around the country, the mood was anger, sadness, and frustration. That people made space to cry into one another’s arms, chant, “Say Her Name!” and hold up signs calling for ways to rethink policing might be one small glimmer that we’re on our way to thinking bigger. John Minchillo/AP Protesters gather in Louisville, Kentucky, after it was announced that no police officers would be charged with the killing of Breonna Taylor. John Minchillo/AP Police push back protesters in Louisville. John Minchillo/AP Police detain protesters in Louisville. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Demonstrators march acroos the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. Natasha Moustache/Getty Images Protesters march in Chicago, Illinois. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images Demonstrators gather in Denver, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images A woman holds a “Justice for Breonna Taylor” sign in Denver. Drew Angerer/Getty Images Demonstrators march near the White House in DC. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Breonna Taylor protestors gathered at the Barclays Center in New York City. Nathan Howard/Getty Images A protester walks toward Portland police in Portland, Oregon. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The legal theories of Amy Coney Barrett, explained
Judge Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in as a judge for the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. | Julian Velasco An expert explains originalism, the Roberts Court, and what a Justice Barrett might do. With President Trump set to announce his nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court on Saturday, the leading contender, according to reporters close to the White House and betting markets, is Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who sits on the US Court of the Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (based in Chicago) and is also a law professor at Notre Dame. The 48-year-old Barrett was appointed by Trump to the appeals court in 2017, and was also reportedly a finalist for Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat in 2018. She has been portrayed as a favorite of social conservatives seeking to push against the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence. She is unusual, compared especially to famously (and perhaps strategically) tight-lipped recent nominees like Brett Kavanaugh and Elena Kagan, for her extensive paper trail on questions of constitutional law. As a legal academic, she’s written extensively on what obedience to the original meaning of the Constitution requires of judges and members of Congress; how to reconcile the importance of precedent with allegiance to the Constitution’s original meaning; and how precedent can be used to mediate deep disagreements about the law. As a result, we know more about her jurisprudential beliefs than we’ll know about those of any SCOTUS nominee since, perhaps, Ginsburg. We know she identifies as an originalist who believes that the original public meaning of the Constitution is binding law. But we also know that she is skeptical of the radical libertarian originalist idea that economic regulation is presumptively unconstitutional, and that she believes some Supreme Court decisions that originalists may conclude are incorrectly decided nonetheless stand as “superprecedents” that the Court can abide by. Her legal writing has also prompted heated reactions from detractors. One piece (with fellow law professor John Garvey) on when Catholic judges might be obligated to recuse themselves from death penalty cases, prompted criticism from Senate Democrats during her appeals court confirmation hearings, who suggested Barrett was unable to separate her faith from her jurisprudence (a charge she strongly rejected). Another piece (with late Notre Dame colleague John Copeland Nagle on how members of Congress should incorporate the original meaning of the Constitution into their votes has raised the eyebrowsof some commentators, because it begins by noting that there are originalist arguments (which the paper itself does not accept, except for the sake of argument) to think that West Virginia was invalidly admitted as a state; that the 14th Amendment wasn’t properly ratified; and that paper money is unconstitutional, among other surprising conclusions. To better understand her academic writings, I reached out to Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton and a leading expert on originalism and constitutional interpretation. I wanted to get a better sense of what it means that Barrett is an originalist, how her variety of originalism works, and how to understand her most prominent academic papers. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows. If you want to dig deeper, Whittington teaches a course on constitutional originalism and the syllabus is a great place to start. Dylan Matthews Let’s start very basic: What is originalism? Keith Whittington I think of it simply as a commitment to think that one, the meaning of the text of the Constitution is fixed at the time of its adoption, and two, that that has consequences for how judges ought to adjudicate cases. Then there’s lots of wiggle room as to how much consequence that should have for judges in particular kinds of cases, how exactly do we determine what the meaning of the Constitution is, etc. But [University of Virginia law professor] Larry Solum has characterized those as the two central principles of originalism, and I think that’s right. Dylan Matthews Is it possible to divide the current Supreme Court into originalists and non-originalists? Who would fall in each camp? Keith Whittington I think they all act as originalists to some degree, actually. Many different approaches to thinking about constitutional decision-making would say that there are times when originalist arguments are appropriate, and you ought to pay attention to them. So a case I was just writing about recently, the “faithless electors” case from this last term [about whether Electoral College electors can be required to vote for the presidential candidate who won their state], Elena Kagan wrote the majority, Clarence Thomas writes a concurring opinion, and both those opinions are basically originalist in their structure and design. There are moments when all the justices are willing to draw on that kind of argument. Some see it as more foundational than others and draw on it more exclusively. Thomas is clearly the leader on this front. Since Scalia has left the court, Thomas is the one who is most consistently committed to thinking about historical meaning, and is most emphatic that the justices ought to be thinking about the original meaning of the text and trying to apply it to cases before them. I think it’s too early to say the degree to which Kavanaugh is particularly committed to originalism. Gorsuch certainly has indicated that he thinks it’s important. I think both Alito and Roberts, on the other hand, have indicated that they are a little more pluralistic. Originalism is part of what goes into their decision-making, but it’s not the only consideration they have in mind. They’re similar to previous conservative justices. I think Chief Justice Rehnquist was like that. He sometimes talked about originalism, sometimes it’s important, but also sometimes departed from it and didn’t focus on it very much. All the conservative justices would say it’s important, but they aren’t all equally committed to thinking it’s the primary goal that ought to be driving their opinions. Dylan Matthews Let’s talk about Amy Coney Barrett. She’s a legal academic who has contributed extensively to debates about how originalists should act and rule. Where does she fall on some of those questions? Keith Whittington She’s been pretty vocally committed to originalism as really being the guiding light, more so than some others. She is more explicitly committed to the notion that one ought to be an originalist, and that it is the primary principle for judges, than Roberts is, or than Kavanaugh historically was. In that sense, she’s a little more like Thomas and Gorsuch. She has a clear judicial philosophy, and originalism is at its core. I think it’s less clear to what degree she is a pure textualist the way Gorsuch tends to be, and to what degree she’s willing to think beyond the text as she thinks about original principles. I don’t think she’s really emphasized the kind of narrow textualism that Gorsuch has emphasized. I suspect her originalism is going to look a little different than his version. On the other hand, she has also suggested that judges ought to care more about stare decisis [the doctrine that courts should generally abide by their previous rulings] than Thomas tends to. I think she’s a more moderate figure in that regard than Thomas. She would be trying to navigate precedents that are in conflict or in tension with original meaning, rather than just thinking they ought to be tossed overboard. She clearly is a kind of originalist. She doesn’t look quite like either Gorsuch or Thomas, but she’s probably playing in the same sandbox. Dylan Matthews I’m glad you brought up stare decisis. A paper she wrote with her colleague John Copeland Nagle, “Congressional Originalism,” has caused a bit of concern among critics, in part because she leads with a list of precedents that arguably conflict with the original meaning of the Constitution. Brown v. Board of Education is the most incendiary one, but she mentions arguments that West Virginia was invalidly admitted, that the 14th Amendment wasn’t properly ratified, that paper money is unconstitutional, and so forth. She doesn’t say she thinks they ought to be overruled — and indeed suggests that the point is moot in most cases as these issues would never come before the Court — but I think even putting up the examples has raised hackles. How should people weighing her nomination think about that paper? Keith Whittington I tend not to think it’s terribly significant. To some degree, it is an academic enterprise of trying to think about, “What are the tensions here? What are the implications of adopting a certain theoretical perspective? What are the implications if you think there are tensions between the theory and some of these foundational constitutional decisions thathave been made over time, whether they are things like creating the state of West Virginia or things like Brown v. Board?” For her, that’s just a starting point for then trying to think about how to deal with the fact that there are going to be these tensions. Importantly, her view was not, “you’ve got to go overturn all these decisions,” whether it means getting rid of the state of West Virginia, or whether it means overturning judicial decisions that have been made that are hard to justify on originalist grounds. From her perspective, the question is, “What do you do about the fact that there are, from a theoretical perspective, mistakes that have been made over time?” The answer is not always that you’ve got to run out and correct all the mistakes. Sometimes you have to figure out how to live with those mistakes. Part of what’s interesting about her work is that she’s in part concerned with figuring out how to live with our mistakes. That’s not an easy question, from a theoretical perspective. From a judicial perspective, they often don’t have to confront that very directly. An academic is very interested in trying to say, “Let’s look at the creation of West Virginia or the Brown decision and think through the constitutionality of that and what it means about how the system works.” From a judge’s perspective, that’s not much of a practical problem that’s going to come in front of you. But there might be implications in how you think about those issues that do have more practical consequences for how you behave as a judge. I think her enterprise, of trying to think more practically about what those implications are, is helpful. Dylan Matthews A concrete worry a lot of left-of-center people have about Barrett is that a commitment to originalism puts important precedents — Roe v. Wade is the obvious one, but also the cases establishing a right to same-sex marriage, for instance — at risk of being overturned if she concludes they conflict with the Constitution’s original meaning. Barrett’s willingness to concede that we have to live with some decisions she considers “mistakes” in a theoretical sense is pretty interesting then. Why would an originalist think that? Why doesn’t every originalist act like Thomas in consistently putting precedent second to original meaning? Keith Whittington For at least a couple of reasons. One is a practical political one, that you can’t overturn all the mistakes. But the more you think there are quite dramatic mistakes. the more you need a theory about, “How do you live with those mistakes rather than try to overturn them?” If you think all the mistakes that your theory identifies are actually relatively minor and small, you can more easily imagine getting out there and cleaning them up. The more you think they’re actually big and important, then the more important it becomes to try to figure out a theory that allows you to live with those mistakes and figure out how to move forward given the existence of those mistakes. Originalist theory has moved on this front. It’s increasingly become interested in that question of how many and how significant are the mistakes out there from an originalist perspective? And then how do you deal with them and manage them? Some of the early academic literature in particular was often interested in adopting a fairly revolutionary posture and suggesting there’s lots of big, important, mistaken decisions, and we ought to be trying to correct them all. The more recent literature has really moved away from that, in part because it’s become more practical. It’s not just an academic exercise anymore. The other issue that a lot of originalist scholars are starting to circle around is that judges made all kinds of decisions in the past that they themselves did not try to ground in original meaning. It’s an easy instinct to think all those things are mistaken. But instead, we might start analyzing those more closely and finding, actually, it turns out you can build an originalist argument that gets you to a very similar place. So we ought to be trying to think about to what degrees those precedents can actually be salvaged, can be regrounded on better foundations from an originalist perspective, that might provide better guidance as to what you ought to do in the future, given those precedents, and how we ought to be trying to develop them, how they fit more coherently within the overall constitutional scheme. Dylan Matthews The other paper of hers that’s gotten a lot of popular attention relates to how judges should balance their faith and their rulings. She’s responding in part to William Brennan, a Catholic liberal on the Court who spoke about leaving his faith at the door when acting as a justice, and partially disagreeing with him. What do you make of that piece? Does it imply anything important about her jurisprudence? Keith Whittington My impression of that was that she wants to recognize it as being a problem, and therefore try to figure out how it ought to be reconciled. A lot of people have run with the notion that she’s emphasizing the significance of her religious belief and, likewise, the religious beliefs of other judges and justices. But I think it’s one of these cases where that’s the starting point for her, saying, “It is true that judges have religious beliefs. And those religious beliefs sometimes have implications for the kind of issues that come before the court.” And then the question is how judges ought to deal with that. Certainly her conclusion is not simply that judges ought to therefore impose their religious beliefs. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The commodification of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
A bobblehead of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is left outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, as people mourn her recent death. | Jose Luis Magana/AFP The political fandom around the late justice vaunted her to superhero status. That flattens her legal legacy. In the hours after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the liberal internet was ablaze with social media tributes to her legal legacy, endearing memes, and flattering portraits of the octogenarian. As a sense of dread about the future of the Court and the country settled in, branded merchandise of the late justice began to sell out, from Funko Pops to screen-printed tees, on small Etsy and Amazon shops and in larger, corporate retail stores. This impulse toward political merchandise is likely driven, in part, by grief or a desire to retain memorabilia that would capture this historical moment. For some, buying something can be a comforting activity — a habit those with disposable income have indulged in quarantine. The onslaught of posthumous RBG consumerism is a sign of what the political merch industry relies on: the American desire to believe that these purchases can stand in place of political action. This latest wave of Ginsburg-mania is distinct from the fawning over Fauci prayer candles and “It’s Mueller Time” tees. While Dr. Anthony Fauci and former special counsel Robert Mueller rose to fame amid crises, Ginsburg’s decades-long legacy leaves Americans with more to grapple with — including the pitfalls of political fandom and how valorizing a public figure, even in death, threatens to flatten their life’s impact. There’s a significant amount of capital that goes into the political merch industry, which thrives in the lead-up to an election season or a highly anticipated political event, such as the Mueller hearings. And while some on Twitter took aim at the e-commerce platform Etsy and its sellers, which have become a comedic shorthand for profit-driven “girlboss feminism” in the wake of Ginsburg’s passing, the snarky social media quips directed at consumers haven’t stalled purchases. Some are using this opportunity to sell RBG-branded items, such as a commemorative RBG yard sign ($21.59) or a knit collar pattern ($2), where all proceeds would be donated to Democratic Senate candidates. Marie Lucia, an Etsy seller from Knoxville, Tennessee, was compelled to find a way to raise money for Democrats, while honoring Ginsburg’s memory. “The night Ruth died, I was thinking, ‘What would she want us to do?’” Lucia told me. “Would she want us to grieve or be politically active? That’s why I thought it would be nice to make a memorial sign and donate everything we made from it to Senate candidates, which is where we need the most help.” Ok guys, here are the first RBG items in our etsy store. 100% of all proceeds + shipping will be donated to Dem senate candidates. If you make a purchase please leave me the your choice in the notes section. #RestInPower #RBG https://t.co/9jzHiEyLox pic.twitter.com/fK5Oin5di3— Lucia - Sanity in the South (@ResistSister111) September 20, 2020 Lucia only has two Ginsburg-related items in her shop, which primarily sells Biden-Harris yard signs and other pro-Democrat merchandise. However, this isn’t her full-time gig; she described it as a side hustle that will likely end after the 2020 election. “There’s a lot at stake right now and it’s important to be involved,” she said. “I make a living designing wedding gowns, but with these political items, I feel like I’m making a difference.” But while independent sellers like Lucia also have the ability to politicize their products and donate to a cause they support, that commitment is unlikely among larger retailers, like the Funko corporation. The perils of political consumerism occur when these purchases completely replace political action; when the meme replaces the nuanced reality of the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg, in the last decade of her life, did not seem to oppose the commodification of her image among zealous young liberals, even though she did not profit from it. (She told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2014 that she kept “quite a large supply” of Notorious RBG T-shirts on hand.) The feminist blogosphere in the mid-2010s vaunted Ginsburg into political celebrity-dom, alongside then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. The online moniker, “The Notorious R.B.G.,” was popularized by a fan Tumblr made by a New York University law student in 2013, and from there, the memeification of the justice’s image took off. A cottage industry of Ginsburg-related bumper stickers, enamel pins, coffee mugs, and books popped up for liberal mainstream consumption. But in 2020, the era of branded resistance merch and girlboss-as-political identity feels like it has reached its expiration date, even as the larger-than-life image of Ginsburg continues to be a pop culture rallying point for ardent liberals. The meme feels somewhat outdated and relies on what some say is a problematic premise. Jeffrey Melnick, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has researched Black-Jewish relations, recently published a Twitter thread on the branding of “Notorious RBG,” and how it is reminiscent of a type of minstrelsy popular in the 20th century. “The whole meme is just seen as this cute and funny image, of ‘look at this old Jewish lady and put a crown on her,’” he told me. “But what is the meaning behind this joke? The premise is similar to what blackface minstrel performers have relied on — that it’s funny for a small white woman to be cast in the place of a Black rapper.” [I'm a scholar of Black-Jewish relations and finally have to say that I'm really uncomfortable with the whole minstrelized aspect of the whole "Notorious RBG" thing]— Ask Me About Our Faculty Staff Union! (@melnickjeffrey1) September 20, 2020 Melnick, who said he received an “unsurprising” amount of pushback online, was concerned by the amount of “hero worship” around the late justice. Uncritical idolization of a figure, he said, prevents people from taking a hard look at the work Ginsburg has done and the work that lies ahead: “I think people should really reckon with her work and not rely on these easy, comforting memes and images that portray her as the scrappiest, most down-to-fight justice.” During her life, the consumerist cult of RBG fueled a frenzied sort of political fandom, one that made it difficult for Americans to imagine a Court without her presence: “The more Ginsburg’s persona was revered, the more she appeared to be literally irreplaceable,” the New York Times’s Amanda Hess wrote in August. In the week after her death, more people began to vocally challenge the supporters that blindly lionize Ginsburg and whether she even deserved her progressive superhero status — citing moments like her calling Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem “dumb and disrespectful”; her defense of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh; and her concerning lack of Black clerks. No religion should determine law, whether it’s abortion or Indigenous rights. Yet, RBG upheld a fifteenth century papal bull that said Indians barely possess faculties that distinguish them from animals.— Nick Estes (@nickwestes) September 20, 2020 Indigenous people have also pointed to her decision in Sherrill v. Oneida as a sign of her anti-Native sentiments, a case in which the Court decided that the Oneida tribe did not have native sovereignty over parcels of lands they purchased from New York state. The complex reality is that Ginsburg was deeply committed to incrementalism, Vox’s Ian Millhiser reported, so much so that “her preference for gradual change was sometimes confused with conservatism.” She was indeed a talented and necessary liberal force on an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, but the “Notorious RBG” persona misleadingly casts her as a radical and irreplaceable force for good. In hindsight, it’s ironic that Ginsburg’s public profile was elevated by her Supreme Court defeats, namely her dissent in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New Republic, “the meme was never the big problem with the false idea of Ginsburg as liberal or feminist savior, but it pointed to one — the brand-driven, girl-bossed, leaned-in conception of women’s freedom in which it incubated.” The future of the women’s rights movement, Grant argued, should not have relied on the “life chances of one woman in considerable power.” As President Donald Trump and Republicans prepare to find a replacement for Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, some might argue that there are larger issues to focus on than the consumerist tendencies within political fandom. Yet these criticisms neglect how many well-intentioned Americans purchase items they might not necessarily need — simply to prove a point or display their party loyalty. As I previously reported for The Goods, Americans, regardless of their political party or socioeconomic standing, seem to “take pride in wearing hacky tag lines or garish emblems that seemingly portray their values.” For some, these consumerist tendencies — even donations garnered through an Etsy purchase — stop short of actual organizing. But in times of crisis, people appear more willing to open their wallets for a cause they support. After Ginsburg’s death was announced on Friday, ActBlue reported that Democratic donors gave more than $100 million, breaking several hourly donation records the site has received since it first launched. It seems that Ginsburg’s imperfect legal track record hasn’t trumped her social influence, at least among Democrats. But the many RBG knickknacks that seek to commemorate her death, as these products championed her in life, should serve as a warning — that Americans should be wary of placing their political faith into one influential figure. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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“I don’t want to be a nurse, a purse, or worse”: 5 seniors on dating online
Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox What it’s like to try online dating for singles who are 65 or older. Swiping, chatting, ghosting, and scammers — online dating is complicated for digital natives used to communicating mainly online. But what if you’re giving it a shot for your first time in your 60s? “I felt a little too old to be out in bars trying to pick up women,” said Bruce, a 66-year-old from Long Island, New York, who started online dating using Zoosk more than two years ago (Zoosk is a general dating website, but one that’s popular among older singles). “I was a little hesitant because I hadn’t dated in a long time — I was married for 26 years or so — but I thought online dating would be a good way to break the ice, and everybody’s equal on the internet.” For those 65 and older, a group with much higher marriage rates than young adults, online dating can be an easier way to meet other singles and people outside of their friend groups. According to Pew Research, the rate of people ages 55 to 64 using dating sites and apps doubled between 2013 and 2016. And as of last fall, 13 percent of people 65 and older have gone online to find love compared to 48 percent of those aged 18 to 29. That number is likely increasing, especially now that the pandemic has forced everyone, but especially higher risk seniors, to socially distance. “As you get older, it’s much harder to meet people,” says Rita, 67, from Long Island. “I always had luck just running into people — I met my second husband at a record shop — but after he died, I was lonely for sure.” She found that browsing online became the new spontaneous meet-cute. (Spoiler alert: She met and then started dating Bruce on Zoosk!) As these seniors prove, the highs and the lows of joining a dating website can happen at any age — even in the middle of a pandemic. Here, five people over 60 share their experiences with finding love on the internet. “Sometimes I feel like part of it is my age, that people might think that I’m either gullible or a target financially” Janet, 68, New York, New York I went back on dating sites a little bit more seriously in the last year because you hear so many success stories, so you think, “Okay, fine. Maybe I’m just not doing it correctly.” But personally, I haven’t had too much success. I was on Zoosk for about a year, and I had three scammers. In two of the cases, I found out it wasn’t their real pictures. In this day and age, you only have to Google somebody’s name. Or you’ll try to make plans — this is pre-pandemic — and they’ll say, “No, I can’t do it. Oh, I’m traveling. Oh, I’m stuck here.” I also found that anybody who says they’re a civil engineer is a scammer because they have to go to places like Malaysia or Indonesia to build some roads or a bridge — and then they need money because they can’t get back. Sometimes I feel like part of it is my age, that people might think that I’m either gullible or a target financially. But I don’t want to be a nurse, a purse, or worse. I’m actually speaking with somebody tonight that I met on Coffee Meets Bagel who seems pretty normal. But I suggested a FaceTime first so I can actually see if he matches his picture. “In my profile, I said that I wasn’t looking for drama” Bruce, 66, Long Island, New York I wanted to try online dating because I felt a little too old to be out in bars trying to pick up women. I’m youthful, but you know, it’s just not easy for me at this point. I wasn’t nervous, but I was a little hesitant because I hadn’t dated in a long time — I was married for 26 years or so — but I thought online dating would be a good way to break the ice, and everybody’s equal on the internet. I tried Zoosk because I heard it was better for older people. In my profile, I said that I wasn’t looking for drama, just looking for somebody with similar interests. Oh, and no Trumpers! I actually put that in there, because prior to meeting my girlfriend Rita, I went on a date with a woman who was very sweet, but she said she prayed for Trump every morning. Really. It was a turn-off. After that, I tried talking at first with someone to make it a little bit more comfortable for when we did meet in person. But it hasn’t been all bad — Rita and I are about to celebrate our two-year anniversary. I don’t tell people what to do in general, but if a friend is struggling, I say, you know, online dating worked for me. And there’s always a chance you meet a good friend. “As you get older, it’s much harder to meet people” Rita, 67, Long Island, New York The night I met Bruce, I had gone on a date with another man who sounded very athletic, and he was a professor, too. I thought, “This sounds like an interesting person!” Well, the minute I met him, I was like, “No, no, no.” He was very forward, and it made me uncomfortable. So I told him I was getting tired, even though it was only 6:30 pm. I got in my car and remembered that I had spoken to Bruce earlier in the week, so I called him and said, “What are you doing?” I just had to shake that other guy from my psyche. Bruce and I met up, and it was a completely different experience. We just felt comfortable. I decided to do online dating because my husbands kept dying. I’ve had a really bad run. My first husband died when I was 40, and I had just started having children with him. And then I met somebody 10 years later, and then he died in 18 months. And then I did finally remarry somebody else. And then he died about, I think this is nine years now. As you get older, it’s much harder to meet people. I always had luck just running into people — I met my second husband at a record shop — but after he died, I was lonely for sure. I had a full life otherwise, but as a widow, my kids were in school and all the other parents were double-dating and going out with each other, and they just didn’t ask me to come. So what do you do? You look for somebody that’s really compatible and hope that they like to do the same things you do. But unlike meeting someone in your 20s, when you meet somebody in their 60s, they’re coming in with a whole set of experiences and likes. And sometimes it’s pretty hard to embrace it. One guy called me up and he said, “Listen, I love to sail, and my friends and I are going out on a weekend adventure, are you up for it?” Like, what do you think, I’m nuts?! Risk my life? I couldn’t get over it, but I guess that’s just the way he was! “I really would like a younger man in his 70s because too many men in their 80s have just let themselves go” Elaine, 82, Spring Lake, Michigan I’ve been widowed now five years since my second husband passed away. I know I don’t want to get married again, and maybe this sounds horrible, but I really just want to have a man in my life. Both of my husbands were very loving and affectionate men, and I miss that horribly. For my dating profile, I have a girlfriend that helps me get hooked up on a site and then she takes my pictures and tells me, you know, we’ll put that in there and put that in there. I know a lot of women who are younger than me, and in my mind, they look older than me because I keep myself current. I’m not dead yet! And so I really would like a younger man in his 70s because too many men in their 80s have just let themselves go. You can’t believe some of the, um, some of the pictures that come up on my accounts, and I just think really? One time I went on a lunch date, I’m sitting there waiting for him, and pretty soon I hear this click, click, click. I glance up and here comes this man with a cane! I had no idea. Online dating during the pandemic can be frustrating because I’m more of a face-to-face person. I don’t want to talk on the phone for a long time because you can’t see the other person’s expressions. And I’m not quite into the Zoom thing yet, so I would be very willing to, you know, meet for a lunch or glass of wine or whatever, even right now. In the very beginning, after their father passed away, my children didn’t like the idea of me having anybody in my life. But I explained to them, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be alone and not having that partner.” And now I just tease them about it. This is who I am. So they just roll their eyes and think, “Oh, mother.” “I know what I want, and what I don’t want” Kathee, 65, Grand Haven, Michigan I actually started online dating way back in 2008. I was getting divorced, and so I was on Match. I’ve also been on eHarmony, and that didn’t work out well. I found out that there’s a lot of scamming going on on these websites. That why I stopped eHarmony. This one guy was getting pushy and then he disappeared completely. It was because they kicked him off the site! That’s why I started using Plenty of Fish. The older you get, the pickier you become. I have a boyfriend now, but when I was online dating, I was looking for someone in my own age category who had a job or was retired — not anyone who needed someone to put a roof over their head. I wanted someone who was able to take care of themselves. At this age, you end maybe living with someone versus marrying them just because of all the money that gets involved and gets tangled up, like 401ks and Social Security. If the guy I’m dating now doesn’t work out, I don’t know if I’d do it again, because as men get older, they want someone to just take care of them. I remember even my mom was a widow at 70 and she joined a golf group. She gets there and it’s mostly men in their 70s, and she goes “Oh, this one’s got this pain, and this one’s got this ache. I’ve done my deal with having a sick husband and I am not doing it again.” I just know myself better now, and I know what I want, and what I don’t want. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Postal workers say they are ready for the mail-in voting surge
Tara Jacoby for Vox Unless Postmaster General Louis DeJoy gets in the way. Over the last few months, Lori Cash has watched US Postal Service management remove mail sorting machines, curb after-hours pickups and deliveries, and limit overtime work in the Upstate New York region where she has worked for more than 20 years. These kinds of operational changes in the USPS, which rolled out across the country, have caused significant mail delays — and legitimate concern that they could interfere with an expected surge in mail-in voting for this November’s general election. Many have speculated that the postal service slowdowns were intended to interfere with the election because some of these controversial cost-cutting measures were initiated after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor, took over in June. And President Trump stoked these concerns when he admitted in August that he was blocking new funding for the postal service in part to sabotage universal mail-in voting. So how worried should we be — if you vote by mail this election, will your vote get counted? Cash told Recode that despite the hurdles and delays these changes have caused, she haslittle doubt that she and her colleagues around the country are ready for the expected mail-in voting rush ahead of the historic presidential election. “Where we stand right now, I feel confident that we can handle the amount of ballots,” Cash, a postal worker and local union leader with the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), told Recode in early September. “We can definitely handle the volume even with the machines that have been removed.” Yet Cash’s confidence comes with one big caveat: She fears that DeJoy, who paused the controversial initiatives last month in the wake of congressional pressure and a media firestorm, may still institute more disruptive changes between now and November 3. If that happens, she believes all bets are off. About a half-dozen other rank-and-file postal employees in New York, Florida, Montana, and New England echoed Cash’s perspective in conversations that took place after DeJoy committed to pause the disruptive measures in August: They are adamant that they and their colleagues are prepared to handle the barrage of ballots — so long as DeJoy stays out of the way. “My biggest concerns are people not mailing ballots in early enough. If there are delays in some areas, and if DeJoy makes any more significant changes out in the field, that would definitely disrupt the [mail-in voting] operation,” Cash said. “My advice to people is to make sure you know what your due date is and get that ballot in the mail two weeks early. I want people to still be proactive and mail their ballots in early — because just because [DeJoy] is quiet right now, doesn’t mean that at the last minute he won’t make any drastic changes.” But the biggest challenge mail-in voting faces is one of trust, perhaps more than anything else. Even if DeJoy keeps his word on pausing the cost-saving changes until after the election and the USPS handles tens of millions of ballots without a major disruption, will the general public trust the results? Sowing that doubt appears to be a goal for Trump, who has for months been pushing baseless, misleading claims about how susceptible mail-in ballots are to fraud. And it seems to have worked: Conspiracy theories about the process abound. As a result, for government officials in states where voters will rely heavily on voting by mail, educating the public about how and when to vote by mail is more crucial than ever. With the Covid-19 pandemic making in-person voting a potentially risky activity, as many as 80 million people could end up voting via mail-in or drop-off ballots ahead of the election, according to a New York Times analysis. Such a surge in mail-in voting would mark more than a 100 percent increase from mail ballot totals in 2016. That kind of spike would apply massive pressure to the USPS and its 500,000 employees even in normal times. And these times are anything but normal at the United States Postal Service. DeJoy, a top Republican donor and former logistics company CEO, took over as the USPS chief in June and has since overseen a series of cost-cutting measures that worried postal employees, union leaders and some politicians, who feared that the accompanying deterioration in mail and package delivery times would cause a mail-in voting fiasco. The delays have also disrupted the lives of Americans who rely on timely postal service deliveries for prescription drugs, social security checks, and other important goods. Still, America’s postal workers are committed to getting the job done. “I think and hope [DeJoy] is hiding and going to let us do our thing and get all election mail delivered like before,” a veteran postmaster in New England, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, told Recode. “We get daily emails [from management] to make sure all election mail, incoming or outgoing, is clear everyday.” Joanne Borell, a 25-year veteran of the USPS who is a postal clerk in Billings, Montana, says she has no reason to believe the postal service won’t handle mail-in voting on time, even with increased demand. More than half of all voters in Montana voted by mail in 2016, and Borell said she has never witnessed or heard of significant issues with handling ballots. “We deal with passports, live animals, and other things people really care about,” Borell said in an interview. “We are always watching for things that we have to take special care of.” What does concern Borell is how some mail delays and misleading claims about vote-by-mail fraud has caused many Americans to lose confidence in the postal service. Recently, a family member of Borell told her they were worried postal employees with a political bias would discard or tamper with ballots to try to give their chosen candidate and party a boost. Such conspiracies are not surprising at a time in which Trump has routinely publicly attacked mail-in voting. But Borell was offended by the suggestion. “Never in my entire career have I seen anybody do something like that,” she said of tossing ballots in the trash. Another postal clerk, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters, said a deluge of Amazon packages is what is currently overwhelming the post offices where the employee works. But the USPS has actually seen a decline of customers sending first-class mail like bills and letters during the pandemic, which presumably would allow the postal service to more easily process a surge of mail-in ballots, which are also typically treated as first-class. “From what I can see, we are perfectly capable of handling [a surge of mail-in ballots],” the worker said. “But we’re getting destroyed with packages. It’s like Christmas never ended.” Nate Castro, a mail processor in Tampa, Florida, and a local APWU leader, said election ballots, which get labeled with a red tag to denote their importance, will get processed quickly and accurately — barring unforeseen changes by DeJoy or other top management to existing USPS processes. “You want to vote in-person? So be it; that’s your voting right,” Castro told Recode. “But it should also be the right for every person to vote by mail.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The first big test of Facebook’s oversight board will be the US election
Facebook’s oversight board, which has independent authority to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether controversial posts should remain up or get taken down, will launch in October. | Tobias Hase/picture alliance via Getty Images The board — which has the power to overrule Mark Zuckerberg on content decisions — will start up as soon as mid-October. Facebook’s much-anticipated independent oversight board — a group that will be able to overrule Facebook’s leaders, even CEO Mark Zuckerberg, about whether controversial posts should stay up or be removed— announced its plans to start making decisions on contested content by mid to late October. That means the board may be called on to make decisions about important Facebook posts related to the US presidential election. In recent months, some have criticized the long-awaited board for not moving quickly enough to deal with issues around misinformation, hate speech, and extremism on the platform, and doubted whether it would be functional before the November election. But as long as internal testing of its technical systems goes well, the board says it will start accepting contested content cases around mid to late October. That means that if President Trump or any other candidate declares a premature victory on Facebook on election night, the board could potentially take on that case and decide whether that post should stay up or come down. While the board is still determining the specific criteria for how it will prioritize cases, it generally will take on “difficult, significant and globally relevant” cases “that can inform future policy,” according to its website. “The go-live date is not connected to any specific case that the board is seeking or not seeking to take,” Facebook oversight board’s director of administration Thomas Hughes told Recode. “That said, the type of case you just described [in which a politician declares a premature election victory], would be in scope, and could be referred to the board by Facebook, or potentially in time, referred to by a user.” Here’s how the board will work once it goes live: It will take cases both from users and Facebook itself. Facebook the company can refer any kind of contentious post to the board it wants an outside opinion on, and the board will have 90 days (or 30 days if the case is expedited) to rule on the decision. For Facebook users, they can only go to the board if something they personally posted was taken down and they want to dispute it. In later months, the board plans to expand its purview and allow users to request for other people’s content to be taken down if they believe it violates Facebook’s policies against things like hate speech or harmful misinformation. At a time when Facebook is being attacked by both Republicans and Democrats for how it’s been handling politically contentious speech in the US, the board is meant to add oversight to the company’s decision-making. But it won’t solve the lion’s share of Facebook’s problems around how to deal with hate speech and misinformation. For one thing, the board will only take a small number of cases a year, likely “tens or hundreds” according to Hughes, out of the tens of thousands of annual cases that are expected to come its way. And it won’t be all about the US, either. Facebook’s oversight board is made up of 20 lawyers, academics, journalists, and policy experts from all over the world — collectively, its members speak 27 different languages and have lived in 29 different countries. “Obviously, the US election has an enormous impact on the world,” said Hughes, “But there will be a quite a broad range of things that the board I think would be very keen to get stuck into early on.” Facebook first floated the idea of an independent oversight board back in 2018, as it was facing scrutiny for its handling of Russian interference on the platform during the 2016 US election. Almost two years later, the board in January announced its governing rules, and in May announced its members. Ruling on specific controversial posts is one thing, but actually getting Facebook to rethink its policies is another challenge. Some social media researchers have questioned the power of the board to dictate Facebook’s policy, and how much the company will listen to its recommendations. Now, the election could turn out to be the first big test of how impactful this oversight board will truly be in practice. In fact, whether or not the board accepts a case related to controversial election content is a test in and of itself. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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What happens to the law in a world without Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, celebrating her 20th anniversary on the bench, posed for a portrait in Washington, DC, on August 30, 2013. | Nikki Kahn/Washington Post/Getty Images Sloppy, purely partisan arguments are likely to prevail. Barring a miracle or an asteroid strike, the Supreme Court is likely to have a 6-3 Republican majority very soon. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has signaled he intends to back his party’s plan to swiftly confirm a yet-to-be-named replacement for Justice Ruth Bade Ginsburg — and it’s exceedingly unlikely that Democrats can block Trump’s nominee without Romney’s vote. So the small but significant check Chief Justice John Roberts previously placed on his Republican colleagues will likely soon be gone. Roberts, frequently the median vote on the current Supreme Court, is very conservative, but he is both less partisan and less aligned with movement conservatism than his fellow Republican justices. He sometimes rejects conservative legal arguments that are poorly reasoned or transparently partisan, or that ask him to move the law to the right faster than he is willing to go. With a sixth Republican on the Court, however, this limit on Republican power is likely to disappear. Trump spent the past three and a half years filling federal appellate courts with staunch conservatives, often with the guidance of conservative organizations such as the Federalist Society. That gives him a deep bench of potential Supreme Court nominees who are unlikely to disappoint the GOP in the future. The Court has already moved significantly to the right since it handed down some decisions protecting LGBTQ rights, limiting police surveillance, and preserving most of Obamacare, among many other things. If Trump fills Ginsburg’s seat, those decisions could be in grave danger. To be sure, there’s always some amount of unpredictability in the Supreme Court. Sometimes, a conservative justice is torn between competing ideological commitments, some of which lead them to form occasional alliances with their liberal colleagues. And it’s always possible that one or more conservative justices could be forced to leave the Court shortly after a Democratic president takes office. But realistically, unless Democrats trounce Republicans in the upcoming election and win enough congressional seats to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices, Republicans are likely to hold a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court for a long time. And with six votes, Republicans could afford to have one of those six cast an occasional, futile vote for a liberal outcome. Roberts is less tolerant than his fellow Republican justices of bad lawyering by conservatives It’s difficult to predict the full consequences of an additional Republican on the Supreme Court. Many of the differences between Roberts and his fellow Republican justices are less ideological than temperamental. Roberts shares most of the same policy goals as his Court’s right flank, but he is more likely to be turned off by bad lawyering, by transparently partisan arguments, or by calls to flout the Court’s ordinary procedures. In a Court led by Chief Justice Roberts, Republican lawyers who wanted the Supreme Court to implement Republican policies still had to wrap these requests in somewhat plausible-sounding legal arguments. It’s far from clear that these lawyers will face similar constraints in a 6-3 Republican Court. The Supreme Court completed its most recent term a little more than a week ago, a term that featured several high-profile — if narrow — losses for conservative causes. Notably, Roberts broke with his fellow Republicans in two cases where conservative advocates presented unusually weak arguments to his Court. Roberts typically votes to limit abortion rights, and his recent opinion in June Medical Services v. Russospends several pages criticizing the Court’s decisions protecting those rights. Nevertheless, Roberts reluctantly voted with his four liberal colleagues to strike down a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — a credential that is very difficult for these doctors to obtain and that does little or nothing to improve health outcomes in abortion clinics. The reason for Roberts’s vote was simple: The Louisiana law at issue in June Medical was, in all relevant respects, identical to a Texas law the Supreme Court struck down four years earlier in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016). “I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided,” Roberts wrote in his June Medical opinion. But he concluded that the principle of stare decisis — the doctrine that courts should generally be bound by their prior decisions — compelled him to strike down Louisiana’s law. A similar dynamic played out in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, where Roberts joined his four liberal colleagues in holding that the Trump administration didn’t complete the proper paperwork when it decided to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States. The striking thing about Regents is the utter pointlessness of the Trump administration’s decision to bring this case all the way to the Supreme Court. If the administration wanted to end DACA, it should have corrected its paperwork error instead of spending years unsuccessfully trying to convince the courts to excuse this error. In many cases, Roberts’s insistence on legal and procedural regularity will only delay conservative outcomes — Roberts, for example, is still overwhelmingly likely to dismantle the constitutional right to an abortion once abortion opponents bring him a better case. But his formalism also places significant constraints on the Court’s Republican majority, and on the Republican Party’s ability to set policy through litigation. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 1989: when, in writing for the majority of the Court, I adopt a general rule, and say, “This is the basis of our decision,” I not only constrain lower courts, I constrain myself as well. If the next case should have such different facts that my political or policy preferences regarding the outcome are quite the opposite, I will be unable to indulge those preferences; I have committed myself to the governing principle. Roberts appears somewhat committed to this same principle, that procedural rules and inconvenient precedents cannot simply be tossed aside because they stand in the way of a conservative outcome. The other four Republicans appear far less committed to this principle, given their willingness to cast aside principles like stare decisis in cases like June Medical. With six Republican justices, Roberts will no longer be the swing vote. So it is likely that a majority of the Supreme Court will ignore many of the constraints that, as Scalia wrote a generation ago, prevent judges from ruling by fiat. The fate of the 2020 election could be up to Trump’s new appointee Republicans owe their power to a constitutional system that increasingly allows them to govern even when the voters prefer Democrats. Americans have a president who received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent in 2016. In the Senate, because of malapportionment, the Republican “majority” represents 15 million fewer people than the Democratic “minority.” Both of Trump’s justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the nation. Trump’s new nominee is likely to become the third justice who owes their job to these anti-democratic pathologies in our constitutional system. That nominee is likely to join a Court that is already fairly hostile to voting rights. And one of their first tasks in their new job could be deciding an array of disputes related to the upcoming presidential election. Republicans have a $20 million war chest they plan to spend on lawyers seeking to shift this election in the GOP’s favor, and the Biden campaign has its own army of lawyers planning to fight back. Trump’s lawyers are already litigating a wide range of cases seeking to make it harder to vote, from an effort to shut down voting by mail in Nevada to a suit seeking to ban drop boxes for absentee ballots in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the post-election period is likely to feature a blizzard of lawsuits seeking to declare some ballots invalid, or to require states to count other ballots that otherwise would not be counted. And the specter of Bush v. Gore (2000), where five Republican justices halted a ballot recount in Florida and effectively threw the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, looms over all American elections. If the newly reconstituted Supreme Court intervenes in this election on Trump’s behalf, that intervention could take one of two forms. The election could end in a single, closely watched decision like Bush v. Gore. But the Court could just as easily throw the election to Trump by a series of decisions — a few ballots tossed out here; a higher standard for counting absentee ballots there — that have the aggregate effect of changing the result of the presidential election. America becomes even less democratic in a 6-3 Republican Court Setting aside the upcoming election, the fairness of future elections is likely to suffer — possibly severely — in a 6-3 Republican Court. Under Roberts’s leadership, the Supreme Court dismantled much of the Voting Rights Act. It’s neutered most of the nation’s campaign finance laws. And it’s permitted laws that serve no purpose other than voter suppression. But it can get worse. “There are already five conservative votes on the Supreme Court to dismantle campaign finance reforms,” according to Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University and an expert on money in politics. In this sense, Torres-Spelliscy told me, a third Trump justice would only provide a “superfluous sixth vote” for the Court’s decisions undermining these laws. But there is one area of campaign finance law where the current Supreme Court has stayed its hand: disclosure laws. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Court’s landmark decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that his Court should have also tossed out many laws requiring many donors to disclose their donations. At the time, Thomas was the only justice who took this position, but the Court has changed significantly in the decade since Citizens United was handed down. Justice Neil Gorsuch frequently provides a second vote for Thomas’s most radical opinions. Similarly, as an aide to then-President George W. Bush, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a 2002 email that there are “constitutional problems” with laws imposing limits on how much donors can give directly to candidates — one of the few campaign finance laws left untouched by decisions like Citizens United. That suggests Kavanaugh could join Thomas in striking down more campaign finance laws. And then there’s Justice Samuel Alito. Though Alito did not join Thomas’s opinion in Citizens United, he is arguably the most reliable Republican partisan on the Supreme Court. As Adam Feldman, a lawyer and political scientist who runs the website Empirical SCOTUS, told me, Alito “is the sole conservative justice on the Court not to join the liberals in a 5-4 decision” — meaning that he has never once cast the deciding vote for a liberal outcome. (The one plausible exception to this trend is Alito’s brief opinion in Gundy v. United States (2019). But, in Gundy, Alito endorsed a conservative deregulatory project that is rejected by all four of the Court’s liberals.) It is unlikely, in other words, that Alito would cast a liberal vote in a campaign finance case if four other justices already support a conservative outcome. A third Trump justice could also erect new barriers before the right to vote. Although the Roberts Court has already dismantled much of the Voting Rights Act, the primary law preventing racial voter discrimination, it has thus far left in place the law’s “results test,” which prohibits any law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Thus, while the Act is much weaker than it was just a decade ago, it still retains some vibrancy. Many state laws that disenfranchise voters of color remain illegal. But Roberts is a longtime opponent of this safeguard against racism in elections. According to the voting rights journalist Ari Berman, Roberts was the Reagan Justice Department’s point person in a failed effort to scuttle the results test. As a young lawyer, Roberts “wrote upwards of 25 memos opposing” such a test, according to Berman. Roberts may have the votes right now to effectively dismantle what remains of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has not heard a major Voting Rights Act case since the relatively moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy was replaced by the hardline conservative Kavanaugh, so we don’t know how far the current Court is willing to go in dismantling what remains of the Voting Rights Act. At the very least, however, every Republican added to the Supreme Court increases the likelihood that the remainder of the Voting Rights Act will fall. 20 million Americans could lose health coverage in the pandemic Chief Justice Roberts famously broke with his fellow Republicans in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), a decision upholding most of the Affordable Care Act. Three years later, in King v. Burwell (2015), Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy broke with their fellow Republicans again to reject a new attack on Obamacare. But Kennedy is no longer on the Court. Without Ginsburg, it’s far from clear that there are still five votes to preserve the landmark legislation that provides health coverage to approximately 20 million people. And, with a third Trump justice on the Court, Obamacare could fall quite rapidly. The Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments in California v. Texas, the latest case seeking to repeal Obamacare by judicial decree, in the fall. The plaintiffs’ arguments in Texas are, frankly, outlandish. They rest on the assumption that, when Congress repealed a single provision of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, that requires the courts to dismantle the entire law. But the fact that these arguments are widely viewed as ridiculous — even by many conservative legal scholars — won’t necessarily deter most of the Supreme Court’s Republicans from voting to strike down Obamacare. On the eve of oral arguments in NFIB, the first Obamacare decision, the plaintiffs’ arguments in that case were also widely viewed as misguided. An American Bar Association poll of Supreme Court experts found that 85 percent believed the Affordable Care Act would be upheld, and another 9 percent believed the Court would dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. That didn’t prevent four justices from voting to repeal the entire law. And, with another Trump justice on the Supreme Court, that four could become five. LGBTQ Americans could be stripped of their constitutional rights The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which held that federal civil rights law prohibits workplace discrimination against LGBTQ workers, is probably safe. That decision was 6-3, with both Roberts and Gorsuch voting with the majority. But the Court’s constitutional decisions protecting LGBTQ rights stand on far more precarious ground. Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court’s landmark decision establishing that same-sex couples enjoy the same marriage rights as opposite-sex couples, was a 5-4 decision with Kennedy in the majority. Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which placed strict limits on the government’s ability to prohibit sexual activity between consenting adults, and Romer v. Evans (1996), which held that the government may not pass laws solely to express “animus” against gay people, were both 6-3 decisions with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Kennedy in the majority. O’Connor and Kennedy were replaced with hardline conservatives. It’s possible, in other words, that all three of these decisions could fall even if Trump’s nominee is not confirmed — although, for that to happen, a state would likely have to pass a law that violates Obergefell, Lawrence, or Romer to test whether the Supreme Court would strike that law down. With a third Trump justice, it is even less clear that the Court’s new majority will value stare decisis more than it values a conservative approach to LGBTQ rights. It’s also possible that the Court could leave decisions like Obergefell nominally in place, but allow states to deny many rights to LGBTQ Americans. The Court, according to Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “might permit states to undermine Obergefell by treating married same-sex couples differently in some ways — for example, by permitting states to favor straight couples in adoption or family benefits or even in the definition of who is a legal parent.” Minter’s view was echoed by Josh Block, a lawyer with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project. While Block said he does not think a newly constituted Court “would vote to overrule Obergefell completely and allow states to ban marriage outright,” he fears the Court’s new majority “could allow states to treat those marriages differently.” Indeed, that’s more or less the approach that Gorsuch took in Pavan v. Smith (2017). Obergefell held that the Constitution protects same-sex couples’ right to marry “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” In Pavan, a majority of the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that treated married same-sex couples differently than married opposite-sex couples with respect to which names appear on a birth certificate. Gorsuch dissented, in an opinion joined by Thomas and Alito. His opinion suggested that states may be able to discriminate against same-sex couples so long as they argue that “rational reasons exist” for the discrimination. The EPA could become a hollow husk As a general rule, Congress may legislate in two different ways. The simplest way is to enact a law commanding certain individuals or businesses to behave in a certain way. Thus, for example, if Congress wishes to limit pollution, it can pass a law commanding power plants to install a particular device that reduces emissions. But Congress may also lay down a broad policy and instruct a federal agency to issue relatively easily updatable regulations implementing that policy. The Clean Air Act, for example, provides that certain power plants must use “the best system of emission reduction” that currently exists, while also taking into account factors such as cost. It also gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to issue binding regulations instructing energy companies on which systems they must use to limit emissions. That way, the regulations can adapt as technology evolves. Congress still sets the overarching policy — the impacted power plants must use the “best system of emission reduction” — but the EPA determines what that “best system” is at any given moment in time. In Gundy v. United States (2019), however, Gorsuch called for vague new limits on Congress’s power to delegate regulatory power to agencies. And, while Gorsuch’s opinion in Gundy was technically a dissent, all five members of the Supreme Court’s current Republican majority have since signaled they are supportive of Gorsuch’s approach. Existing precedents typically require courts to defer to Congress’s decision to delegate regulatory power to an agency. Gorsuch would replace these precedents with a new standard providing that a federal law permitting agencies to regulate must be “‘sufficiently definite and precise to enable Congress, the courts, and the public to ascertain’ whether Congress’s guidance has been followed.” Under Gorsuch’s approach, judges — and ultimately, Supreme Court justices — would get to decide which federal laws delegating power to an agency are “sufficiently definite and precise,” and which ones should be struck down. So it will matter a great deal who sits on the Supreme Court. In a post-Gundy world, courts will have far more power to make discretionary calls about which regulations they wish to uphold and which ones they wish to strike down. That means that a more conservative Court will tend to strike down more regulations favored by Democrats. Police could gain far more power to engage in surveillance The current Supreme Court is arguably more friendly to criminal defendants than it was 20 years ago. For many years, the Court was dominated by conservatives incubated in the “tough on crime” rhetoric preferred by presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The current Court, by contrast, is more likely to see criminal justice cases through a libertarian lens. A big reason for this libertarian turn is that individual conservative justices hold defendant-friendly views on certain criminal justice issues. Roberts often votes with his liberal colleagues in cases where police use new technology to conduct intrusive searches. Gorsuch wrote the lead opinion in a case holding that criminal defendants may only be convicted by a unanimous jury. Kavanaugh is a long-standing opponent of racial jury discrimination. While it’s important that justices like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh sometimes take a broad view of the rights of criminal defendants at trial, Roberts’s support for limits on police conduct is likely to prove more consequential — because the overwhelming majority of criminal suspects never receive a trial to determine their guilt. “97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains, with defendants pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence,” according to a 2012 analysis by the New York Times. So Supreme Court decisions protecting trial rights only impact a small minority of defendants. The gap between Roberts and his fellow Republicans was most on display in Carpenter v. United States (2018), where Roberts voted with his four liberal colleagues and held that police “must generally obtain a warrant supported by probable cause” before obtaining cellphone records that can be used to track an individual’s movement. Carpenter was a significant case because, as Justice Kennedy wrote in dissent, the Court has typically held that “individuals have no Fourth Amendment interests in business records which are possessed, owned, and controlled by a third party.” But Roberts recognized that, as police gain more and more technologically sophisticated methods of tracking criminal suspects, the Constitution must recognize new limits on these methods. It’s one thing to say that police can track every number dialed on a particular phone, but it’s another thing altogether to say that police can turn each individual’s cellphone into a homing device that monitors their every move. If Roberts is no longer the swing vote, Carpenter could potentially fall. At the very least, the Court is likely to grow less skeptical of police overreach and less fearful of the awesome surveillance power given to police by new technology. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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How Mitch McConnell is changing the Democratic Party
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol on March 18. | Win McNamee/Getty Images What Senate Democrats are learning from Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell was elected to the US Senate in 1985. He was named Senate minority leader in 2007, and Senate majority leader in 2015. It was, for McConnell, the culmination of decades of planning, labor, and, when necessary, self-abasement. “The ultimate goal of many of my colleagues was to one day sit at the desk in the Oval Office,” McConnell writes in his memoir, The Long Game. “That wasn’t my goal. When it came to what I most desired, and the place from which I thought I could make the greatest difference, I knew deep down it was the majority leader’s desk I hoped to occupy one day.” And oh, what a difference McConnell has made. He will go down as one of the most consequential Senate leaders in history. But his legacy isn’t defined by bills passed or pacts struck. McConnell’s legislative record, in terms of both his accomplishments and those he’s shepherded through as leader, is meager. He has passed tax cuts, cut regulations, and confirmed judges. He failed to repeal Obamacare, shrink or restructure entitlements, or pass infrastructure or immigration reform. Historians will not linger long over the laws McConnell passed. As McConnell himself has said, his most consequential decision was an act of negation: blocking Merrick Garland from being appointed to the Supreme Court. McConnell’s legacy, rather, will be in transforming the United States Senate into a different institution, reflecting a different era in American politics. Historically, the Senate has been an institution unto itself, built around norms of restraint and civility, run according to informal understandings and esoteric rituals, designed around the interests of individuals rather than the stratagems of parties. This is the Senate McConnell claimed to revere, naming Sen. Henry Clay — known as “the Great Compromiser” — as his model and promising a restoration of the old traditions. This is the Senate McConnell has eviscerated, through his own actions and those he has provoked in the Democrats. Despite his theatrical embrace of sobriquets like “Darth Vader” and “the Grim Reaper,” McConnell isn’t an evil genius. He is a vessel for the currents and forces of his time. What sets him apart is his fulsome embrace of those forces, his willingness to cut through the cant and pretense of American politics, to stand athwart polarization yelling, “Faster!” Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen after the Senate Republican policy luncheon on March 17. Under McConnell, the Senate has been run according to a simple principle: Parties should use as much power as they have to achieve the outcomes they desire. This would have been impossible in past eras, when parties were weaker and individual senators stronger, when political interests were more rooted in geography and media wasn’t yet nationalized. But it is possible now, and it is a dramatic transformation of the Senate as an institution, with reverberations McConnell cannot control and that his party may come to regret. Indeed, McConnell’s single most profound effect on the Senate may be what he convinces Democrats to do in response to his machinations. “What makes McConnell successful is he gets his party colleagues and the Democrats to buy into his vision of the Senate rather than trying to change it,” says James Wallner, a fellow at the R Street Institute and a former executive director of the Senate Steering Committee under Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Mike Lee (R-UT). I will confess to a deep pessimism about American politics right now. We stand on the precipice of a legitimacy crisis — minoritarian rule has become the norm, an unpopular president has all but promised to refuse to accept a loss at the polls, and a political system that has only ever worked with weak parties is proving unable to govern amid the collisions of strong ones. But there is a glimmer of an optimistic tale that can be told, too. And, to my surprise, it revolves around McConnell, and the vision of the Senate that he is convincing Democrats to embrace, the reforms he might, at last, convince them to make. What did Mitch McConnell do wrong? Rewind the clock to 2016. Justice Antonin Scalia has died. President Barack Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, a moderate Democrat whose confirmation would end conservative dominance over the Court, to replace him. Mitch McConnell commands a 54-vote Senate majority, lifted into office by conservative voters who loathe the idea of a liberal Supreme Court. McConnell does two things here, and they are worth separating. One is philosophical, and even principled. He decides to treat Supreme Court nominations as what they are: one of the most ideologically consequential votes the Senate takes. The other is cynical: He refuses to even hold a hearing on Garland, instead inventing an absurd rule, one that he will later break, that states that Supreme Court seats shouldn’t be filled in presidential election years. McConnell’s calculation was simple: If Garland was permitted to testify, some Senate Republicans might revert to treating the nominee on his merits and swing to support Garland. McConnell needed Republicans to act like a caucus, not individual senators. And so he froze the process on a vote that united his party rather than one that divided them. “It’s a question of power and only secondarily of explanation,” says Steven Smith, author of The Senate Syndrome: The Evolution of Procedural Warfare in the Modern US Senate. “But politicians need to talk, so they need explanations.” Liberals focus on the wanton hypocrisy of McConnell’s comments. “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” he said at the time. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” But focusing on what McConnell said obscures the underlying logic of what he did: Republicans didn’t want Obama to fill Scalia’s seat, they had the power to stop him, and so they did. All the rest of it was just mouth noises. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images McConnell in 2016 tells reporters that support among Senate Republicans has not waned for his refusal to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland. This is the true McConnell rule: What parties have the power and authority to do, they should do. And to give him his due: It is much stranger, by the standards of most political systems, for the reverse to be the case, for senators to refuse to use their power to pursue their ideological ends on a question as important as a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. But that’s how American politics has traditionally worked. It worked that way because the parties, and their Supreme Court nominees, were different than they are now. The parties were ideologically mixed rather than ideologically polarized, and Supreme Court nominees were ideologically unpredictable rather than heavily vetted and ideologically consistent. From the 1950s through the 1990s, knowing the party that nominated a justice told you little about how that justice would vote. All of that lowered the stakes on each nomination. Today, we have ideologically disciplined coalitions naming their most reliable foot soldiers to lifetime appointments to the most powerful judicial body in the land. Those changes predate McConnell; his contribution was taking them to their logical conclusion in the Senate: Treat Supreme Court nominees like any other major ideological vote, and do whatever you need to do to win. “I am not sure that any majority leader in history has had less regard for the institution than Mitch McConnell” This attitude also drove McConnell’s record-breaking use of the filibuster during the Obama era. The Senate has long had a filibuster, and it was technically more powerful in the past than today. Until 1917, there was no procedure by which any number of senators could vote to end a filibuster. From 1917 to 1975, it took a two-thirds supermajority to close a filibuster. Even so, filibusters were rare in this period — with the gruesome exception of the Southern bloc of Dixiecrats who used them to block civil rights legislation. But as the Dixiecrats proved, it was relatively easy for a united group of senators to block any and all legislation, if they so chose. The rules gave them that power, and the minority party could’ve used it with abandon. The norms, and the diffuse nature of the parties themselves, kept them from routinely using it. What’s changed the US Senate isn’t changes to the rules, and it’s not just McConnell. It’s been the sorting of the parties into ideologically and demographically distinct coalitions. And it’s this trend that McConnell has, depending on how you look at it, harnessed for his ends or embraced because of his weaknesses. Either way, he has wrenched the Senate away from its traditional role as an institution unto itself, governed by norms of restraint and civility, and midwifed its transformation into another forum for party combat. He has created a parliamentary environment in an institution where the rules were designed for comity and cooperation. The result has been gridlock, fury, and confusion. “I am not sure that any majority leader in history has had less regard for the institution than Mitch McConnell,” says Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). “He claims he’s an institutionalist, but that’s a lie. Instead of having any shred of responsibility for the institution, he simply has done what he believes he can get away with and still win. And up until now, that’s been true. But I think the cost of that is going to turn out to be extraordinary.” What McConnell has wrought Over the past few months, I’ve been talking to Senate Democrats about the future of the filibuster. To my surprise, something had cracked in the ice. Moderate members who used to dismiss calls to abolish the filibuster were taking them seriously, predicting or even advocating its fall. And the reason they gave me was always the same: Mitch McConnell. The singular lesson Senate Democrats learned from the Obama years was McConnell simply wouldn’t let them govern if they retook the majority. The hope that their cross-aisle friendships, technocratic compromises, open committee processes, or informal “gangs” could break McConnell’s obstruction had dissolved. And with the world warming, and the virus raging, and millions unemployed, they knew that if they retook power, they would have to govern. “We’re not going to pass on a historic set of opportunities to allow garden-variety obstruction,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). “We’re going to get this done.” I want to note, here, that both sides have their narratives of persecution and blame. Republicans believe Democrats broke norms, abused rules, corroded traditions. In 2013, for instance, Democrats nuked the filibuster on executive branch appointees and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations. They argue, I think correctly, that McConnell forced their hand, filibustering an unprecedented number of appointments and making it functionally impossible for Obama to govern. Republicans argue that Democrats changed the rules rather than naming more moderate choices to key positions and have reaped what they sowed. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images President Obama greets Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol in 2013 to discuss tax reform, spending cuts, gun control, and immigration. I think Democrats have the better of this argument, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the underlying dynamic that’s important. Smith calls it “Senate syndrome.” In a 2010 paper that is all the more useful for predating the past decade of escalation, he wrote, “In today’s Senate, each party assumes that the other party will fully exploit its procedural options — the majority party assumes that the minority party will obstruct legislation and the minority assumes that the majority will restrict its opportunities.” What Democrats now believe is McConnell won’t let them govern if they win, and in the aftermath of Garland and of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, he won’t show them any quarter if he wins. Republicans, to be fair, believe the same about Democrats. Compared to the Senates of yore, both sides are right. McConnell has gone further, faster, than the Democratic leaders in torching old precedents and making the realpolitik principles of the new era clear. But in doing, he’s potentially done something that liberal activists and pundits were never able to achieve: convince Senate Democrats that the Senate is broken, and that new rules are needed. In this, McConnell’s strengths are also his weaknesses. He possesses a brazenness about American politics, a cynicism about the use of power, that lets him execute stratagems other leaders would be constrained by their reputations or fear of backlash from attempting. But that same comfort with the dark side, that willingness to play the Grim Reaper of politics, robs his opponents of their excuses for inaction, of their comforting belief that comity and compromise waits around the corner. “It is a little bit frustrating when liberals complain, because McConnell is not doing anything wrong per se, he’s just using his power very aggressively in ways that are permitted by the rules,” says Adam Jentleson, a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and author of the forthcoming book Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy. “You can complain about that all you want, or you can respond by doing the same thing when you have power. And Democrats are starting to realize they have a responsibility to the health of our democracy to pass the structural reforms that will make the Senate, and thus the government, more reflective of the country.” In the long run, McConnell may reshape the Senate more completely through what he compels Democrats do than through what he himself does. Could McConnellism lead to democratization? I began this piece by saying my optimistic vision for politics revolves around McConnell, and it’s time I made good on that argument. Before I do, let me state the obvious: Crisis is not always opportunity. Sometimes, it is just crisis. And America may simply fall into fracture or illegitimacy. If it is to avoid these fates, it will require actions that few politicians enjoy contemplating, and the safest bet is always that politicians will duck hard choices. What follows here, then, is not a prediction but a possibility. Representative democracy is a good system, provided it is both sufficiently representative and sufficiently democratic. America, in 2020, is neither. The Senate gives the Republican party a 6- to 7-point advantage. The Electoral College gives the Republican Party a 65 percent chance of winning elections in which it narrowly loses the popular vote. Because of these advantages, the Republican Party has managed to secure startling dominance of the Supreme Court, despite rarely winning a majority in national elections. And that same Supreme Court then delivers rulings that further help Republicans win elections; in fact, President Trump has said explicitly he is counting on the Court to help him challenge mail-in ballots. "We need 9 justices. You need that. With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they're sending ... you're gonna need 9 justices." -- Trump suggests he's counting on SCOTUS to have his back when he makes claims of election fraud following November's election pic.twitter.com/Ju8ShMe8MN— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 22, 2020 Democracy works because it disciplines politicians and parties: It forces them to hew closer to what the voters want, and punishes them when they diverge too far. But that disciplining function dissolves when the pathway to minoritarian rule strengthens. That’s broadly understood. What’s less understood is that it also dissolves when the mechanisms of governance weaken, when government begins routinely failing to deliver voters the change that has been promised. “It’s very difficult right now for Americans to see why it is that they go to the polls and — maybe — the people they vote for get elected, but then not much seems to change,” says Suzanne Mettler, co-author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. “They don’t follow the fact that, well, there weren’t 60 votes for cloture in order to bring something to the floor in the Senate.” The Senate sits at the center of both these currents of dysfunction, and its toxic role in American politics, and American life, has been protected by the thick shroud of mythos and tradition that surrounds it. It is why American citizens in DC and Puerto Rico remain disenfranchised. It is why reforms to make democracy more responsive, to protect it from the flood of cash and the perversions of gerrymandering and voter suppression, have no chance of passage. It is why, even on the occasions when one party holds both chambers of Congress and the White House, so little gets done. “One of the worst things about the filibuster is it allows senators to say they support something without ever having to stand behind a vote,” says Stasha Rhodes, director of the 51 for 51 campaign, which advocates for a DC statehood vote free from the filibuster. “It’s one thing to say you support DC statehood and another to say you support bypassing the filibuster to see it actually happens. It is one thing to talk about the need to reduce gun violence in America. It’s another to say you’re going to remove the hurdles that stand in that bill’s way. The difference between removing the filibuster and not is the difference between theory and action.” McConnell’s use of the filibuster, and his approach to Supreme Court nominations, is heightening the contradictions. Democrats are now considering reforms that are, from the standpoint of democratic governance, overdue, but that were, from the standpoint of Senate traditions and mores, unthinkable: eliminating the filibuster, adding DC and Puerto Rico as states, even changing the composition of the Supreme Court. To Republicans, these reforms would represent escalation. To Democrats, they would represent the only path forward. Perhaps both are right. Drew Angerer/Getty Images McConnell has been adamant that the Senate will vote this year on President Trump’s nomination to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The fundamental conflict in American politics is whether we will, going forward, be a true multiethnic democracy, or whether we will backslide into something closer to minoritarian rule. The crisis McConnell has forced can play out in many ways, some of them terribly destructive. But the certain path to backsliding is simple inaction, in which the status quo persists, minoritarian rule perpetuates itself, and the 20th-century understanding of the US Senate is used to choke off multiethnic democracy in the 21st century. “When I got to the Senate, people used to say, ‘If anyone can do it, Mitch can do it,’” recalls Wallner. “They stopped saying it after he failed a lot.” But in this case, it may be true: If anyone can get the Democrats to take the urgency of reinvigorating democracy seriously, Mitch can do it. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Can Democrats pull off another Senate win in Arizona?
Retired astronaut Mark Kelly with his wife, former Congress member Gabrielle Giffords, in 2017. | Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images The same voters who helped Kyrsten Sinema win could boost Mark Kelly, too. The Senate race in Arizona is giving a lot of people déjà vu. Just two years after running — and narrowly losing — to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Sen. Martha McSally is running again, this time against retired astronaut Mark Kelly, in an attempt to keep her seat. In a unique twist, McSally was appointed to an open Senate seat by Gov. Doug Ducey to serve out the term of the late Sen. John McCain after she’d previously lost. And experts say McSally’s candidacy isn’t the only thing that feels familiar. “I would be willing to wager Sinema just handed Kelly her playbook and said, ‘Here you go, here’s how you win the US Senate in Arizona,’” quipped OH Predictive Insights pollster Mike Noble. Many of the dynamics that defined 2018 — and contributed to the state’s shift to the left — have only become more apparent in the two years since. Independent voters, which make up about a third of the state’s electorate, are still dissatisfied with President Donald Trump and likely to favor Democrats this fall. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden led Trump 57 percent to 38 percent among independent voters in the state. Democrats are also making inroads with moderate Republicans, particularly suburban women, who are interested in less polarized leadership and concerned about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. And the state’s growing population of Latinx voters is continuing to skew Democratic. Caitlin O’Hara/Getty Images Sen. Martha McSally speaks during a rally for President Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 19. “The shift is these Ducey-Sinema voters. You’re a Republican and you’re willing to vote for a Democrat. That’s where I think the most growth has been,” said Lorna Romero, a former communications director for McCain’s 2016 campaign. There are some key differences this cycle that are poised to have major implications on the race, too. The state, like the rest of the country, is still grappling with the public health and economic consequences of a devastating pandemic, which hit Arizona particularly hard this past summer. Plus, the presidential election is poised to loom over any down-ballot races. Strong anti-Trump sentiment in the state, driven by his divisive rhetoric and poor handling of the pandemic, could ultimately amplify the same trends already evident in the last two cycles. Although Sen. Mitt Romney won Arizona by 9 points in the 2012 presidential race, Trump only took it by 3 in 2016. Sinema then won the state’s Senate seat by 2 points in 2018. Following her defeat that year, members of McSally’s team put out a memo that touched on the reasons behind her loss. In it, they summed up several issues — including her decision to align herself closely with the president — that could well lead to the same outcome again. “A significant segment of the AZ GOP was hostile to the President,” the memo read. “This segment of moderate Republicans, especially [women], proved very difficult to bring home to a Republican candidate that supported President Trump and the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh.” In addition to maintaining her steadfast backing for Trump, McSally is poised to take another potentially polarizing Supreme Court vote in the coming weeks, making some of the circumstances she’s dealing with very similar to 2018. Democrats are making gains with moderate Republicans in Arizona According to exit polling from the midterms, Sinema won 12 percent of Republicans as well as 50 percent of independents and an overwhelming majority of Democrats. That same coalition of voters could be the ones to buoy Kelly to victory this cycle. In the RealClearPolitics average, Kelly is ahead of McSally by more than 6 points. And an OH Predictive Insights poll published in mid-September found that 15 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents would support him. “Sinema voters — they are the Jeff Flake Republicans, they are the John McCain Republicans who want civility,” says Derrik Rochwalik, a political consultant based in Phoenix who was previously chair of the Maricopa County Young Republicans. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images Sen. Kyrsten Sinema departs from the Senate floor after a vote on September 16. Trump’s hardline stances on immigration and racist comments about Mexican immigrants are among the factors that have turned these voters away. And McSally’s willingness to back Trump on issues including the national emergency for his border wall and the recent Supreme Court vacancy means many view her as just another extension of his administration. “I want a candidate that will represent my family and that will make decisions based on personal convictions and not just follow the President from their party,” said Mark Tucker, a resident of Gilbert, Arizona, in a recent statement that included a hundred Republicans backing Kelly. While McSally has made a more partisan appeal, experts in the state note Kelly’s messaging has been designed — much like Sinema’s — to reach a specific subset of crossover Republicans and independents. “When you look at his ads, he’s not talking about Democrat-this or Democrat-that. He’s running largely as somewhat of an independent,” says Joe Garcia, the executive director of the Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund. McSally herself nodded at Kelly’s approach in an August event, going so far as to suggest that some people may not be aware he is a Democrat. “Somebody actually could vote Trump-Kelly,” she warned. Carolyn Kaster/AP Mark Kelly takes the stage during the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Kelly’s policy positions, like his messaging, hew to the center: He’s supportive of a public option and reducing drug prices through Medicare negotiation, and he has called out the need to generate more clean energy jobs while stopping short of backing the Green New Deal. Much like many Democrats did in 2018, he’s made defending protections for people with preexisting conditions a centerpiece of his campaign. Kelly is also married to former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, and the two have been leading gun-control advocates in the wake of the 2011 shooting during which a gunman shot Giffords in the head at a constituents’ meeting in Tucson. Presently, he backs universal background checks and red-flag laws, which enable law enforcement to bar individuals from accessing firearms if they are flagged as a danger to themselves or others. “I’m running — to be an independent voice for Arizona,” Kelly has said. Kelly’s campaign declined to make him available to Vox for an interview. McSally’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Kelly’s focus on his independent streak echoes messaging Sinema once used about being able to work with “literally anyone” to get policy done, and it’s one that has played well with Arizona voters, who often boast about how independent they are. McSally, meanwhile, has continued to link herself to Trump in a bet that this connection will be enough to rally members of the GOP’s conservative base in November, even as she’s lost moderates. She’s focused some on her biography as the first woman to fly in a combat mission for the Air Force, but much of her messaging has been dedicated to emphasizing her conservative bona fides. Latinx voters are poised to have huge influence over the election, which could bode well for Democrats A big factor in Arizona’s leftward shift is the uptick in Latinx voters in the state. In 2018, Latinx voters overwhelmingly favored Democrats, with 70 percent supporting Sinema while 30 percent backed McSally. And since the last presidential election, Latinx voter share in the electorate has grown from 19.6 percent to 24.6 percent, with thousands of younger voters reaching voting age. According to Garcia, more than 100,000 new Latinx voters have turned 18 in recent years — and Latinx voters are younger, on average, than white voters in the state. It’s important to note that Latinx voters are not a monolith; the majority who live in Arizona are Mexican American and more likely to be left-leaning. According to the ABC News/Washington Post survey this week, a higher proportion of Latinx voters in Arizona favored Biden than in Florida, for example, a trend that’s indicative of the diversity among members of the group. The pandemic is ultimately an issue at the forefront for all Arizonans, including Latinx voters, who have been disproportionately impacted by it. “For the most part, Covid-19 and the cost of health care are overwhelmingly top issues,” says Edward Vargas, a researcher for polling firm Latino Decisions. “What we’ve seen in our polling is that they trust Democrats much more in addressing issues toward Covid-19.” Both campaigns have focused more of their efforts on reaching Latinx voters — including participating in a virtual forum that will air in October — who historically haven’t seen as much formal outreach from candidates. In 2018, because of more dedicated organizing driven by advocacy groups including LUCHA and Mi Familia Vota, Latinx voter turnout saw a spike compared to 2014. Experts say they expect this same energy — if not more — in 2020. “I think it’s going to be a record-setting election,” says Vargas. The fight for control of the Senate and the presidency looms over this race Because of how she’s positioned herself, McSally’s fate is viewed as inextricably tied to Trump’s. “I do think that the strategy for the president — and Martha McSally — is making sure that the Trump supporters came out of the woodwork to support him in 2016, the play right now is to make sure that those people turn out,” says Romero. McSally has also repeatedly emphasized that her seat is a bulwark against potential Democratic control of the Senate, an effort aimed at targeting those same Republicans, especially as the GOP seeks to confirm a Supreme Court nominee to take the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. “Arizona is the tipping point for whether Chuck Schumer is going to be in charge in the Senate,” McSally said during an August appearance on CBS News. “A vote for Mark Kelly is a vote for ... the radical left agenda.” Matt York/AP Vice President Mike Pence greets Sen. Martha McSally at a Veterans for Trump campaign rally in Litchfield Park, Arizona, on September 18. In the past week, the two candidates provided a glimpse of how they’d handle the Supreme Court nomination: McSally swiftly backed a vote on Trump’s Supreme Court pick, while Kelly argued that a nominee should be put forth by whoever wins the general election. One of McSally’s chief arguments is, “Let’s make sure we don’t lose that second seat and that the Republicans don’t lose the Senate in 2020,” says Rochwalik, the Phoenix political consultant. The pivotal role Arizona could play in determining control of the Senate has also meant that an overwhelming amount of funding has been flowing into this race, with Kelly, in particular, raising a staggering sum. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Kelly had raked in more than $45 million as of a July report, dwarfing McSally, who had brought in $30 million as of a September report. If Kelly can channel this support as effectively as Sinema did, he could see a repeat of her success, too. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The election result the stock market is really afraid of
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on November 9, 2016, after Donald Trump’s upset White House victory. | Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images “Markets don’t give a shit about who’s president”: Wall Street’s biggest 2020 fear is a contested result. Wall Street’s nightmare scenario on Election Day isn’t really a Donald Trump or a Joe Biden victory. It’s one where there’s no clear winner, or a result one side refuses to accept. “We’re kind of preparing for Armageddon on November 3,” one senior vice president at a major quant firm, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely about the matter, told me. “If it’s close, there’s a decent chance that, like, who the fuck knows? Are markets going to be down 20 percent on Wednesday?” One of the higher-ups at his firm recently sent an email asking about a what-if scenario where President Donald Trump sends in the National Guard post-election. At the very least, there are some concerns about possible presidential tweets. Investors are bracing for volatility. Most of the time, markets are not super impacted by who is in the White House, at least in the long term. At a press conference in September, President Trump said that a Biden victory for the presidency would cause “stocks to crash like you’ve never seen before.” But many people predicted the same thing about a potential Trump win in 2016, and about Barack Obama years before. Under both men, stocks climbed, and Wall Street did just fine. “Markets don’t give a shit about who’s president,” Barry Ritholtz, the founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management and a columnist at Bloomberg Opinion, told me. In recent weeks, I spoke with multiple insiders, analysts, and experts about their take on Trump vs. Biden. The takeaway is a complex one — after all, Wall Street is hardly a monolith, and they’re not all giving off Gordon Gekko vibes. Most acknowledged that Trump has been largely favorable to the markets because of tax cuts and his administration’s deregulatory bent. A Biden win would likely mean an increase in taxes, which investors wouldn’t love. And even if the anti-billionaire rhetoric hasn’t been flowing from Biden directly, they’ve heard it from other prominent Democrats. “Rich white guys watch way too much cable news and think everyone is after them” “Rich white guys watch way too much cable news and think everyone is after them. I don’t get it, but these guys are all doing fine in the markets and live in their bubble,” one Palm Beach private equity associate said in an email with regard to their bosses’ dislike of Biden. “They really only care about taxes and it’s quite infuriating.” But many aren’t looking at a potential Biden win as a doomsday scenario. There are plenty of sectors that could do well under the former vice president — green energy, for example — and investors think a Biden administration would likely cool it on tensions with China and be more dovish on immigration, both welcome moves. Plus, markets and big corporations like stability, which it’s hard to argue the current administration is consistently delivering. “Wall Street sees advantages and disadvantages to both candidates,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “It’s not as clear cut as you might normally see in an election.” What Wall Street is weighing isn’t really “Trump vs. Biden,” it’s “Trump vs. Biden vs. ???,” and that third option is the scariest, though not the likeliest. “A recipe for the market getting shellacked” Wall Street prefers certainty, and an undecided election means anything but. Imagine the United States hits November 4, 14, 24, even December, and it’s still not clear who won the presidential election or which party will have control of Congress. Especially with mail-in voting, it’s a real possibility. Or, say there is an outcome but one side refuses to accept it. Trump and Republicans are already starting to set the stage for casting doubt about a Biden victory, and there are concerns about domestic and foreign actors potentially confusing the outcome of the election. Some Democrats say they won’t trust the results if Trump wins. “One of the foundations of a democracy is fair and objective voting, and if that’s now not perceived to be the case, then who knows,” said Jack Ablin, founding partner of Cresset Capital. There is recent precedent for an uncertain outcome: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000. The weeks after the election, while the country turned its attention to the outcome in Florida, was not a great time for investors, as Stephen Mihm at Bloomberg recently explained. By the end of November of that year, the S&P 500 was down by 10 percent, though markets were bouncy, depending on the news of the day. Once the Supreme Court issued its decision in the matter, the markets recovered, at least for a while (they later declined, but for other reasons). As Mihm outlines, it sort of comes down to a philosophical divide between risk you can measure and uncertainty you cannot, outlined by economist Frank Knight in 1921. “The first could be calculated and a wager made based on the odds; the second was a genuine shot in the dark,” Mihm wrote. “The stock market would rather be handed what is perceived as bad news so that people can make an educated decision,” said Ken Greene, a financial adviser based in Nevada. In the 2000 election, the issue wasn’t really figuring out the risk of a Gore presidency compared to the risk of a Bush presidency, it was that nobody had any idea what was going to happen day to day or how things might shake out. This time around, we could see something even more chaotic. Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research a Compass Point Research & Trading, told me that he has discussed a number of election-related issues with clients: what’s going on with deal-making and antitrust scrutiny, what to expect from the housing market, how to think about the banking industry and trade and taxes. “The No. 1 worry that I’ve heard over the last few weeks is not knowing who will be the winner,” he said. And it isn’t just the presidency. The outcome of the Georgia US Senate race might not be known until 2021 — and, therefore, potentially which party controls Congress. “The No. 1 worry that I’ve heard over the last few weeks is not knowing who will be the winner” “If everybody is adult and calm and rational and says let’s count all the votes and figure out who won, it will be fine,” Ritholtz said. “If the crazies come out, and there are a lot of crazies … Mr. Market will not be happy with that at all.” His takeaway: “That kind of unrest and turmoil, that’s a recipe for the market getting shellacked.” Donald Trump has been good for the stock market. Joe Biden will probably be fine, too. President Trump would like everyone to believe that he is 100 percent responsible for the stock market when it goes up and that he has nothing to do with it when it goes down. The truth is neither. The market is influenced by a lot of things day to day, some related to politics, some not. Trump, overall, has been favorable to corporate America and Wall Street. In 2017, he signed into law a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill that disproportionately benefited corporations and the wealthy. (After signing the law, he literally told friends at his Mar-A-Lago resort that they “just got a lot richer.”) His administration has also taken a deregulatory approach to most industries. A Biden administration is likely to change course on some of that. He has proposed increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent (Trump reduced it from 35 percent) and increasing the top individual income tax rate, among other measures. The former vice president has pledged not to raise taxes on anyone making under $400,000 a year. A Biden administration would also likely bring about tougher regulations on certain industries, such as fossil fuels and coal. “When you implement a higher corporate tax, that means [corporations] are not going to be investing as quickly, which means the multiple on the market might compress,” said Luke Lloyd, a wealth adviser at Strategic Wealth Partners. Ablin estimates that a corporate tax increase of the size Biden is proposing could be worth about 10 percentage points in the market. “That said, if Vice President Biden were to win, he would need Congress’s help,” he said, and it’s not clear Democrats will have a majority. “I think investors are taking more of a wait-and-see approach on that one.” If the market does indeed contract around a Biden win, if past serves as precedent, it will eventually come back and do just fine. In fact, historically, investors have done better under Democratic leadership. Getting past the top line, Trump and Biden mean different things for different sectors. Trump has done a lot of defense spending; Biden would likely be better for green energy. Those in private equity would rather not see an increase in capital gains taxes that could potentially come under Biden. Companies with more exposure to China may also benefit from an administration with a less rocky relationship with the country — Wall Street has reacted negatively to the US-China trade war. “If you look at Chinese equities over the last couple of months, they ebbed and flowed with Biden’s improving or trailing chances,” Ablin said. “Both candidates present risks,” Hooper said. She also noted that much of what’s been driving Wall Street, especially lately, has nothing to do with the president at all but instead has been tied to the Federal Reserve, which has made enormous efforts to boost markets. “It has very little, if anything, to do with the occupant of the White House.” White House chaos is not fun for anyone — and election chaos could be even worse The conventional wisdom is often that Republicans mean good for Wall Street and business and Democrats mean bad, but that’s not necessarily the case. And not everyone in the arena agrees. As some billionaires were lighting their hair on fire over the prospect of a Warren presidency during the Democratic primary, she was amassing plenty of fans in finance, too. Despite his working-class roots,the former vice president was largely Wall Street donors’ preferred candidate among the 2020 Democrats, and he and the Democrats are doing quite well with them in the general election, too. Paul Thornell, a former managing director for federal government affairs at Citigroup, told Politico that part of it is that the big banks, for example, aren’t just worried about taxes. “They’re looking at character and how these two conduct themselves as leaders,” he said. Billionaire hedge funder Leon Cooperman, who during the primary crusaded against Warren, in a recent interview with CNBC said that while he thinks Trump has “good economic ideas,” he also has “limited character.” Cooperman said he hasn’t made up his mind on who to support and added that he’s not sure what Biden stands for — a coded, but not uncommon, sentiment among investors worried about how much progressives have the former vice president’s ear. When I emailed him asking him if he had made up his mind, he responded, “I have a firm view but no need to go public!” The Biden campaign is leaning into the theme that Trump is too erratic for anyone to stomach, rich or poor. “Like everything else that’s been handed to him, Trump inherited a strong economy and squandered it, plunging us into a recession,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin in an emailed statement to Vox. She added that the former vice president “knows that the words of a president matter and have the power to move markets, which is why Americans — regardless of their pocketbooks — are crying out for his stable leadership.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. It’s hard to look at the Trump presidency objectively and think it hasn’t been good for corporate America and Wall Street’s bottom line. It’s also impossible not to recognize it’s been chaotic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead in a pandemic, and the economy is deeply troubled — millions of people are out of a job, small businesses are suffering, and state and local governments are flailing. One investment bank vice president who focuses on commodities and oil laid out how he sees the stakes even for giant oil companies: “A Green New Deal or what have you is an existential threat to the fossil fuels business, but the thing is, what’s much more likely to happen is the pandemic rages indefinitely, and no one goes anywhere,” slowing consumption of those fossil fuels anyway. He is a Biden supporter and has given money to Democrats this election cycle. But a Biden loss isn’t his worst-case scenario. “I would much rather Trump win handily and demonstrably than any kind of ambiguity,” he said. “It is the worst possible thing.” Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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How to fix our broken democracy
John Lewis and others leading several thousand people in the 1965 Selma, Alabama, march. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images Voting rights lawyer Janai Nelson lays out a possible path forward. It’s too damn hard for too many people to vote in the United States, and that’s no accident. Voters in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods often have to wait hours in line to cast a ballot. Lawful voters can be purged from the voting rolls without adequate warning. States enact laws that serve no purpose other than to make it harder to vote — and they often do so with the blessing of the Supreme Court. Help, however, is potentially on the way. In the first episode of By the People?, a new podcast miniseries that I’m hosting, I spoke with voting rights lawyer Janai Nelson about a pair of ambitious bills that could pass Congress very quickly if Democrats take back the White House and the Senate in November. These bills offer solutions to a wide range of problems facing American democracy, including gerrymandering, voter purges, and other intentionally efforts to prevent American citizens from casting a ballot. Nelson, who is associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also walked me through several steps that Americans can take so that their votes are counted in 2020. An edited transcript of our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on By the People. By the People? is a special podcast miniseries associated with Vox’s podcast The Weeds. You can listen to future episodes of By the People? by subscribing to The Weeds wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. Ian Millhiser So I want to start with a fairly optimistic future. Imagine that it’s January. We have a different president and we have a Congress that is really itching to pass a really strong voting rights bill. What should be in that new bill? Janai Nelson The good thing is we don’t really have to invent a bill out of whole cloth. There are two comprehensive and transformative bills that have already been passed by the House and provide a really excellent starting point to build a new and improved democracy. Those two bills are the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, also known as HR 4, and the For the People Act, known as HR 1. Ian Millhiser Yeah, let’s drill down a bit into them. So, one perennial problem we see is that a state will pass something, a law that’s already unconstitutional. Maybe it’s a racial gerrymander, maybe it’s just a way of disenfranchising people — but it could take the courts years to strike that law down. And in those years, the state’s running elections under this law that shouldn’t exist. How do you prevent that from happening? How do you prevent lawmakers from enacting a law and running several elections under that law, and then maybe enacting something slightly different when the courts get around to striking it down? Janai Nelson Yeah, we have seen that happen time and again. Probably one of the most vexing problems for voting rights advocates is the idea that an election can take place under a law that is later found to be discriminatory. The great thing is that the VRAA, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which has been named after the late and legendary civil rights hero John Lewis, contains a “preclearance” provision that restores the powerful tool that was in the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court disabled it in 2013. So states like Georgia and Texas and Alabama and Louisiana and many others would have to seek federal approval before they make a voting change. And that’s critical to prevent elections from occurring under laws that should never have been in place in the first place, and that serve to disenfranchise communities and largely Black communities. Ian Millhiser The first election I was really old enough to pay attention to was the 2000 election and specifically the 2000 election in Florida. I mean, it was a nightmare. And one of the things that made it a nightmare is that there was this purge list of voters who were kicked off of the voter rolls. We don’t know how many people were purged who shouldn’t have been purged. But Bush’s margin of victory was about 500 votes. So there’s a decent likelihood that Al Gore would have become president if not for this purge list. Why is voter registration still a thing that can be used to disenfranchise people? Why is it the case that your right to vote still depends on your name appearing on this registration list? And what does the legislation Congress is considering do to deal with that problem? Janai Nelson The 2000 election was the election that really was pivotal for me as well. In fact, it was the very first voting rights case that I ever litigated — to protect Black and Haitian American voters in Florida who had been disenfranchised, some because of the very practice that you mentioned, the voter purge. So let’s just start with voter purging and then go back to voter registration issues in the 2000 election. There’s something called list maintenance, right? And it’s something that we want to see happen in our states where election officials ensure that the people who are registered to vote are still alive, that they still live in the appropriate jurisdiction, and that they meet all the qualifications that we have for voting. And that’s something that’s perfectly legitimate and fair. The problem is that many election officials use what should be an innocuous process of just cleaning up the voter rolls to purge people intentionally from the rolls, to actively remove people from the rolls and to target particular groups that they don’t want to vote. We saw that in the 2000 election where at the time [Florida’s] governor instituted a purge process that targeted people with felony convictions. If you happen to be a member of a community that has a disproportionate number of people with felony convictions, in that case the African American community, also the Latinx community, then you stand a greater likelihood of being kicked off of the rolls as part of that sweep. Not only if you happen to have a felony conviction, but even if you don’t. You may share a name with someone who has a felony conviction. You may be misidentified as someone who has a felony conviction. Now, if we look at the question of voter registration, why do we need to affirmatively have citizens of this country bear such a disproportionate burden and onus to register? In my mind, it’s such an antiquated process. We’re one of the few democracies that places such a burden on voters to participate in our democracy. What a growing number of states is doing now is allowing automatic voter registration. So when you turn 18 and you’re a citizen of this country, you can automatically be added to the voter rolls, and different states do it in different ways. Oregon was the first state to do it in 2015. But since then we have 18 states [and the District of Columbia] that have some form of automatic voter registration, which has increased the voting rolls in many of those states. And there are estimates that suggest that in the first year alone, if we had national automatic voter registration, we might be able to add something like 22-27 million new voters to our voter registration rolls, which could be transformative, especially because it brings a lot of new younger voters into the electorate. And many of them happen to be people of color where we have the largest growing demographic of young people in this country. Ian Millhiser Gotcha. And if HR 1 passes, would it require states to have some form of automatic registration? Janai Nelson Yes, HR 1 would include nationwide automatic voter registration. It also includes what is all-important, early voting, two weeks of early voting in every state, which takes the burden off of our election system on a single day, which still exists in some states. It also marks Election Day as a federal holiday, which again eases the burden on individuals to participate in our democracy by making it a holiday and giving them the time that they need in order to cast their ballots. And finally, the For the People Act also places some limitations on voter purges, which, again, for the reasons we discussed, is quite important. Ian Millhiser So let me switch to a different problem: gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is, I think, a bipartisan problem. But because Republicans happened to have a very good year in 2010, which was the year before the new maps were drawn, they got to do an oversized amount of gerrymandering. And so we’ve seen that in the elections we’ve had for the last 10 years. What can be done? And what specifically is Congress considering right now to deal with this problem of gerrymandering? Janai Nelson Well, it takes us right back to the For the People Act, HR 1, which also deals with partisan gerrymandering. It institutes nonpartisan commissions to draw electoral districts. And there are roughly 20 states that are already using either bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to play some role in the redistricting process, which helps to reduce the partisan overreach that occurs, as you noted, from both parties, but has been exacerbated and just exponential in the hands of the Republican Party in recent years. Ian Millhiser There’s something that Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, said that stuck with me, which is that a lot of these laws that are being enacted by state legislatures and upheld by the courts are written to make voter suppression look like “user error.” It’s not that you were denied the right to vote — it’s that you didn’t bring the right ID. It’s not that you were denied the right to vote — it’s that you didn’t sign your ballot in the right place. What we see going on now, I think, is different than what happened in Mississippi in the 1950s in that it’s not a wholesale, “Well, I look at the color of your skin so you can’t vote.” It’s an attempt to make it look like it is the voter’s fault. I guess given that framework, does that mean that voters have more control? Can they take matters into their own hands and make sure that they don’t get trapped by those sorts of things? Janai Nelson Voters in this country bear such a significant burden in ensuring that they have an opportunity to participate in our democracy. That said, the reality is, in this moment, voters must be prepared to vote. There [are measures] that voters can take to do everything within their power to make sure that they are checking their registrations, that their registration is up to date, that they notify election officials if they move, that they know when early voting starts, that they know how they can cast a mail-in ballot. All of that is information that is readily available to voters if they seek it. It’s unfortunate that they have to seek it. There should be means for voters to receive every possible entry point into our electoral system from state officials. But to the extent that that’s not happening, we’re asking that all voters do whatever it takes to ensure that they can cast a ballot this November. Ian Millhiser In the 1980s, the RNC had a scheme where they recruited a bunch of off duty police officers and I believe gave them armbands identifying them as election security with the apparent intent of intimidating Black and brown voters against voting. And for many years, the RNC was under a court order saying, “Don’t do that.” The court order has now been dissolved. And this will be the first presidential election without that court order in place. So how worried are you about voter intimidation? And what steps can be taken right now to make sure that voters aren’t scared out of casting their vote? Janai Nelson Voter intimidation is as old as this democracy. And the intimidation of Black voters in particular is as old as the 15th Amendment, granting black men the right to vote in 1870. As you pointed out, there has been something of a control on voter intimidation since the 1980s where you mentioned the off-duty police officers who not only were wearing blue armbands, but they were also armed with service revolvers and they swarmed precincts, many of which were in Black and brown communities in New Jersey and other neighborhoods like that to intimidate them and to deter them from casting their constitutional right to vote. It took a lawsuit to disband this so-called National Ballot Security Task Force. And what’s interesting is that — I think not so coincidentally now that that consent decree has expired — Trump stated very recently that we are going to have sheriffs, law enforcement, US attorneys, and attorneys general at the polls. That in and of itself is voter intimidation. To suggest that you have to navigate law enforcement and people who could prosecute you in order to cast a ballot is intimidation on its face. And just recently, Michigan voters received robocalls misinforming them that voting by mail might expose their personal information to creditors and to law enforcement and even to the CDC for purposes of a forced vaccination. It’s that type of misinformation that groups like the Legal Defense Fund are combating by telling voters to be discerning, that if they have a question about a voting rule or law or barrier that they hear about, that they check it with a trusted source. Which is why we are part of an election protection network and force that will have people on the ground on Election Day, that will have people available by phone at 866-OUR-VOTE in order to field calls and complaints and to hopefully get relief, and to go to the court, if necessary, to prevent any further intimidation from happening from the polls. Ian Millhiser So that number that you just said. 866-OUR-VOTE. If I receive a call telling me if I vote, then there’ll be some terrible consequence, that’s the number that I can call to get credible advice on whether I actually need to worry. Janai Nelson That’s right. You can get credible advice on whether that is a legitimate instruction. And it’s also very helpful for us to be able to track what intimidation tactics are being used. And there are many places to go for information if you want to know your polling site, if you know your registration status, there are all sorts of government, as well as civil rights funded sites that can give you that information Ian Millhiser Can you name a few of those sites? Janai Nelson All voters can go to usa.gov/confirm-voter-registration to check and see if they’re registered to vote. And you can just type in basic information about where you’re located and your name and find out immediately if you are registered to vote. And the Legal Defense Fund recently launched a microsite that is devoted to voting and voting rights information. It’s a one-stop shop for everything you might want to know about voting rights, including census and redistricting, which is all tied in to this intricate election system that we have. And that voting site is voting.naacpldf.org. Ian Millhiser And that’s a good reminder that anyone listening who hasn’t filled out their census form, go do that. Janai Nelson Yes, that is critical. Be counted. Ian Millhiser So: What is your plan to make sure that your vote is counted? Janai Nelson Well, I’m proud to say that I’ve already requested my absentee ballot here in my home state of New York. Early voting here begins October 24 and it ends November 1. And I intend to physically turn in my ballot at a precinct during that early voting period to ensure that it is received and counted. And frankly, that’s the recommended plan that we have for anyone who plans to vote by mail, that you request your ballot early, if your state requires that you request and not receive it without any demand, and that you physically turn it in to a designated local election drop off or precinct that will take your ballot. Of course, if you are planning to vote in person, you know, gear up that day and be prepared to face whatever obstacles may come up, including long lines and other issues, ID, if that’s required in your state. And everyone should be reaching out to their networks to make sure that everyone they know is also equally prepared to vote. And finally, one of the things that the Legal Defense Fund is working on with the More Than A Vote organization that was started by LeBron James is a poll worker recruitment drive. If you have the ability to serve as a poll worker in this upcoming election, please do so. We are facing a shortage of poll workers. You can go to powerthepolls.org and sign up to find out more about how to become a poll worker in your jurisdiction to help ensure that everyone can cast an equal ballot and receives the assistance that they need in this election. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The Trump administration’s war on birth control 
Christina Animashaun/Vox The Affordable Care Act made birth control more accessible than ever. Then came Trump. As an OB-GYN in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jenn Conti prescribes birth control to many patients every day, for many different reasons. Some want to prevent pregnancy. Others need a way to regulate painful or irregular periods. One patient has premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a very severe form of PMS. “Every single month, in the days leading up to her period, she gets this debilitating depression and anxiety, such that she’s been suicidal on several occasions,” Conti, a fellow with the group Physicians for Reproductive Health, told Vox. The patient sees a psychiatrist and takes antidepressants, but hormonal contraception is also a key part of her treatment. “With that, over the course of several months, we’ve been able to take her to a place where she’s no longer suicidal,” Conti said. “She’s able to enjoy her life.” While her patients’ stories vary, one thing is constant: Under the Affordable Care Act, patients with employer-sponsored insurance get their birth control without a copay. Conti, who practiced before and after the law went into effect in 2011, has seen that make a huge difference. She thinks of another patient, for whom she recently prescribed a hormonal IUD to help treat painful cramps. The IUD can cost more than $1,000 without insurance, but because of the ACA, her patient was able to get it at no out-of-pocket cost. If they had been responsible for the full $1,000, Conti said, “I know for sure that person would not have been able to afford it.” This is how the ACA was supposed to work: ensuring widespread access to a variety of contraceptive methods, including the most reliable, like IUDs and contraceptive implants. And for a while, it looked like it was working. Thanks in part to the mandate that employers offer insurance covering contraception, the use of these methods rose around the US, more than quadrupling between 2002 and 2017. Meanwhile, the median out-of-pocket cost for birth control among insured patients fell to $0 after the ACA was passed, with 91.5 percent of IUD recipients getting the device at no charge. Then came the Trump administration. In Trump’s first year in office, federal agencies weakened the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, allowing employers to deny birth control coverage if they had a religious or moral objection. Though the rollback was quickly tied up in the courts, dozens of employers signed separate settlements with the administration allowing them to refuse to cover birth control. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court as the Court hears a case in which religious organizations challenge the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate on March 23, 2016, in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, the Trump administration took aim at other federal programs designed to promote reproductive health and access to birth control, including Title X, which funds services like contraceptive counseling and cervical cancer screenings for low-income Americans. The result was that when Covid-19 hit, the country’s safety net was already weakened, with shuttered clinics and reduced hours making it harder to provide the low-cost care that Americans — many of them facing layoffs and loss of health insurance — needed more than ever. Then, in the midst of the pandemic, the Supreme Court dealt another blow to birth control access: The justices upheld the administration’s rollback of the ACA contraceptive mandate in July, a ruling that could mean the loss of contraceptive coverage for 126,000 American workers. Conti thinks of her patient with PMDD. She wonders what would happen if that patient’s employer chose not to cover birth control. “What if she couldn’t afford that monthly cost because she was also raising her family at home and all the costs that that incurs? No one’s thinking about that when they make these rulings, and if they are, they’re just cruel.” The Trump administration, through a systematic dismantling of federal programs and requirements intended to ensure contraceptive access, has turned back the clock on years of successful public health policy and jeopardized countless Americans’ ability to control their reproductive lives. “The best word to describe it is catastrophic,” Conti said. The Affordable Care Act helped millions of Americans access the most effective birth control Long-acting reversible contraceptives, also known as LARCs, are among the biggest public health success stories of the past 20 years. These methods, like IUDs and contraceptive implants inserted under the skin, work for years without the need for the user to remember a daily pill. That ease has been a boon to women, many of whom have shouldered the burden of preventing pregnancy in their relationships. But unlike more permanent methods of birth control like tubal ligation, LARCs can be quickly removed if a patient wants to get pregnant. And they are highly effective, with failure rates of less than 1 percent, compared with about 7 percent for typical use of birth control pills. Christina Animashaun/Vox IUDs had something of a bad name for decades because an early version, the Dalkon Shield, led to serious side effects, including infertility and even death. Even after safer versions became available, doctors were reluctant for many years to prescribe them for younger patients. The “more traditional view” among doctors was that IUDs were for “after you’ve had your children,” Alina Salganicoff, senior vice president and director of women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Vox. Starting in 2007, however, LARCs began to become more popular, perhaps due to the advent of new products like the Mirena, an IUD with an added, non-pregnancy-related bonus — it can reduce menstrual bleeding. Even then, however, there was a problem: cost. While birth control pills cost between $20 and $50 per month without insurance, an IUD insertion can cost more than $1,000 — an unmanageable amount for many patients, especially if they are low-income. But the Affordable Care Act changed the calculation for many patients. The legislation, passed in 2010, requires that employer-sponsored insurance plans cover certain preventive care services without a copay or other cost-sharing. And in 2011, the Obama administration designated contraception as one of the services that had to be covered, in what is often called the contraceptive mandate. That meant that the millions of Americans who got health insurance through their jobs could get birth control at no extra charge beyond their monthly premiums. The law had a significant impact. The share of insured women who got birth control without a copay rose from 15 percent in the fall of 2012 to 67 percent by the spring of 2014. For all forms of contraception, but especially for the costlier LARCs, “the guarantee of that coverage made a tremendous difference,” Salganicoff said. Indeed, one 2016 study found that the reduction in contraceptive cost due to the ACA was associated with a 2.3 percent increase in the use of any prescription birth control, with the biggest effect seen on LARCs. Another study found that privately insured patients’ odds of getting a LARC inserted increased 3 percent after the contraceptive mandate took effect. And while these percentages may seem small, researchers point out that, given the millions of patients of reproductive age in the US, they have a big impact on public health. The rate of unintended pregnancy in the US had fallen to historic lows by the time the ACA was passed, likely due to the rise of LARCs, but it remained far higher than rates in many other wealthy countries. Experts hoped that greater access to the most effective methods of contraception would further drive down unintended pregnancy rates, and although there is little nationwide data on how rates have changed since 2012, there have been encouraging signs. The rate of teen pregnancy, for example, falling for some time, dropped to a record low of 22.3 births per 1,000 in 2015. Going into the fall of 2016, a lot of reproductive health experts were praising the benefits of the ACA mandate and trying to figure out how to extend the benefits of LARCs to even more patients. Then Trump was elected. The Trump administration set about dismantling the ACA — and federal family planning infrastructure Donald Trump had campaigned on getting rid of the ACA, one of President Barack Obama’s signature achievements. He also brought into his administration many social conservatives who opposed both abortion and some methods of contraception. Katy Talento, for example, one of his top health care advisers, has falsely claimed that birth control pills cause miscarriage and can “ruin your uterus.” And in his first year in office, Trump took on both the health care law and birth control access, issuing new rules that created broad exemptions to the contraceptive mandate. Under the rules, announced in October 2017, employers could refuse to provide copay-free birth control coverage if they had a religious or moral objection to doing so. Mark Wilson/Getty Images President Donald Trump (center) congratulates House Republicans after they passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing Obamacare, during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House on May 4, 2017, in Washington, DC. Religious employers and their advocates praised the decision. In requiring religious employers to cover birth control, the Obama administration “was giving them a really tough choice,” Maria Montserrat Alvarado, executive director of Becket, a law firm that represented the Catholic order Little Sisters of the Poor in suits challenging the mandate, told Vox. For the Little Sisters, “being complicit in what they consider to be a moral wrong actually makes a big difference to them, because it’s about consistency in their religious witness.” But reproductive health and women’s rights groups decried the move to broaden exemptions to the mandate. “This will leave countless women without the critical birth control coverage they need to protect their health and economic security,” Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement at the time. The rules soon faced multiple lawsuits, including one by the state of Pennsylvania, which said it would end up having to pay for contraception for many of the patients who lost coverage under the new exemptions, according to the New York Times. The suits would keep the rules tied up in court for years. But more than 70 religious employers signed a separate settlement agreement with the Trump administration allowing them to stop offering birth control coverage even before those suits were resolved. The University of Notre Dame, for example, ceased covering copper IUDs and emergency contraception for some 17,000 students, employees, and their families beginning in July 2018 and began charging copays for other forms of contraception. In the years that followed, the Trump administration would take several other actions that limited Americans’ contraceptive access. For example, in March 2019, the administration issued a rule barring Planned Parenthood and any other health care providers that perform abortions from receiving funding under Title X, a federal program established under President Richard Nixon to provide family planning services to low-income and other underserved Americans. The program was already barred by federal law from paying for most abortions; instead, Title X dollars went to services like contraceptive counseling and screening for cancer and sexually transmitted infections. Many Title X providers also provide routine medical services like blood pressure checks, and for some low-income patients, a Title X clinic is the only medical facility they visit all year. Under the Trump administration rule, however, any provider that offered abortions — or even just referred patients elsewhere for the procedure — had to either stop doing so or exit the Title X program. Planned Parenthood and many other providers — a total of 981 clinics, according to a Guttmacher Institute analysis — chose the latter option. “Planned Parenthood’s withdrawal from Title X shows it will always choose abortion over health care for vulnerable women,” Vice President Mike Pence tweeted in August 2019. “Taxpayer dollars should never go to an org that recklessly disregards the sanctity of life.” But many reproductive health advocates say the rule has had effects far beyond abortion, making contraceptive services harder to get. The rule “would not allow us to provide the kind of care that we wanted to provide,” Lisa David, CEO and president of Public Health Solutions, a New York City nonprofit that exited the Title X program, told Vox last year. The group’s clinics didn’t provide abortions but did refer patients elsewhere for them, and a rule limiting the information its doctors could give “was unacceptable to us,” David said. Joe Raedle/Getty Images Natalia Reyes sits in the exam room as she gets a checkup at a Planned Parenthood in Palm Beach, Florida, the day after the US Senate released a health care bill that would defund the organization, on June 23, 2017. In some cases, clinics had to shut down when they stopped getting Title X funds. Others had to reduce their hours or change their schedules. “Let’s say you have a day a week or two days a week where they were doing LARC insertion. Now maybe it’s every other week,” Salganicoff said. That can make it harder for patients to get the birth control of their choice, especially if they’re juggling jobs, school, child care, or all of the above. Overall, the Title X rule — called the “domestic gag rule” by reproductive rights advocates — led to a 46 percent reduction in the program’s ability to provide contraception, or about 1.6 million patients who could no longer get free or low-cost birth control through the program, according to Guttmacher. And patients who already face obstacles to getting contraception, including young people and people of color, have been disproportionately affected, many say. “It’s definitely having a devastating impact on communities of color,” Margie Del Castillo, director of field and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, told Vox. Prior to the Trump administration rule, about half of patients receiving services under Title X were people of color, and about one-third were Latinx. Now, many of those patients have fewer places to go for care. “What it looks like is people, real people in our community, not getting birth control,” Del Castillo said. And the Title X rule was only one of many actions by the Trump administration that affected Americans’ contraceptive access. In May 2019, for example, the administration finalized a “refusal of care” rule, allowing health care providers such as doctors or pharmacists to refuse to provide contraception to patients if they have a religious or moral objection. Such rules, also in place in some states, can mean patients have to travel to multiple pharmacies to find someone willing to fill a birth control prescription, making it less likely they will actually be able to obtain the medication. In some cases, pharmacists will decline to fill prescriptions if they find out a patient got them at an abortion clinic, even if the prescription is for birth control. “What that looks like for us is pharmacies refusing to fill patient prescriptions because they have our location’s name on there or our physician’s name on there,” Katie Caldwell, a staff patient advocate at the Shreveport, Louisiana, clinic Hope Medical Group for Women, told Vox earlier this year. While the Trump administration denied federal family planning funds to the clinics many patients rely on for contraception, it also directed some of that money to clinics that don’t provide birth control, a crucial part of family planning. In 2019, the administration granted Title X funds to Obria, a network of facilities run by an anti-abortion activist that do not provide hormonal contraception but do spread misinformation about such contraceptives, cancer risk, and abortion. The Trump administration also promoted teen pregnancy prevention programs that use an abstinence-only approach, even though such programs have been shown to be less effective than comprehensive sex education that includes lessons about birth control. Overall, “instead of giving women the choices” when it comes to birth control, “the administration has made the decision on who gets it,” and prioritized the rights of employers and other groups to deny access if they choose, Salganicoff said. The administration has weakened reproductive health providers’ ability to respond to Covid-19 The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic has limited patients’ birth control choices even further. In a Guttmacher survey conducted in April and May, 33 percent of women reported that they had trouble getting birth control due to the pandemic, or that they had to delay or cancel an appointment for reproductive health care. Difficulties were more common among women of color, with 38 percent of Black women and 45 percent of Latinx women reporting problems getting birth control, compared with 29 percent of white women. They were also more common among queer women, 46 percent of whom reported problems with contraceptive care, compared with 31 percent of straight women. There are likely many reasons for these difficulties. Many reproductive health clinics have had to reduce the number of patients they see in a day due to social distancing restrictions, making it more difficult to get an appointment. Public transit schedules have also been cut back during the pandemic, making travel to an appointment more difficult. Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Tribune News Service via Getty Images A banner on the side of the Planned Parenthood of St. Louis building reads “STILL HERE” on May 29, 2020. Moreover, “people are afraid to come see the doctor right now, because they’re afraid of exposure, or they may live in a place where the normal access they had to care is shut down or severely limited because the people who staff and run those clinics aren’t able to come into work,” said Conti, the California OB-GYN. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous patients, whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, may be especially likely to face these barriers. In addition to all these factors, the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic has made it harder to pay for birth control. Low-wage workers already faced many barriers to birth control access, from lack of paid time off to the difficulty of getting to a pharmacy to supervisors unwilling to give them time to go to the doctor, Leng Leng Chancey, executive director of the working women’s advocacy group 9to5, told Vox. “All those are just the barriers on top of, now, bigger barriers.” Millions of Americans — a disproportionate share of them women and people of color — have lost jobs since March, and the employer-sponsored health insurance that comes with them. “People are forgoing reproductive health care to be able to make ends meet and to support their families,” Del Castillo said. Indeed, lower-income women were more likely than higher-income women to report pandemic-related difficulties getting birth control in the Guttmacher survey. And 27 percent of women said that because of the pandemic, they worry more than they used to about paying for or obtaining contraception, with Latinx and queer women more likely to report this concern than white and straight respondents. Overall, it’s a time when more people than ever need low-cost contraceptive services, but family planning clinics around the country — many of them now missing a major source of funding — are less able to provide them. Christina Animashaun/Vox “You just have to think about what these clinics have gone through over the past three or four years,” Salganicoff said. “It has been a consistent challenge and erosion of protections.” Indeed, the Trump administration’s actions and the pressures of Covid-19 are combining to put these facilities — and patient access to contraception — at greater risk than ever. Clinics still adapting to the loss of Title X funds are now, like many medical providers around the country, facing a loss of revenue as patients stop coming for appointments due to the pandemic. They’re also facing staffing shortages that make it harder to see patients, even if those patients are willing to come in. “It really has been very, very difficult for many clinics to continue to operate,” Salganicoff said. Some have already closed or cut staff, with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York temporarily closing 11 of its 28 branches in April and laying off or furloughing more than 240 employees. The concern, for many, is that such closures could proliferate and become permanent as the pandemic drags on, leaving patients with even fewer options for affordable care. Now a Supreme Court victory could multiply coverage losses even further Amid all this, the Trump administration scored a major victory. In the case Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court upheld the administration’s exemptions to the contraceptive mandate. The Affordable Care Act grants the federal government “virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings,” and to “identify and create exemptions from its own Guidelines,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his opinion in the case. The exemptions don’t take effect just yet. Though the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration had the right to issue the exemptions under the ACA, it referred the relevant cases back to lower courts to resolve any other issues. But if the exemptions make it through those courts, experts say, they will have big implications for American workers, whose employers will have broad freedom to curtail birth control coverage or eliminate it altogether. And low-wage workers, who can ill afford to pay out of pocket for contraception, will face the biggest impact, many say. “People have this conception that just because you have employer insurance, you are in a job that pays you what you’re worth,” Mara Gandal-Powers, director of birth control access and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, told Vox. But in fact, many employees at Little Sisters of the Poor, the religious order that was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case and that offers care to low-income older patients, are low-paid workers like medical assistants, cooks, and custodians, she said. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images Cashiers wear protective masks in a grocery store in the Bushwick neighborhood of New York City on April 2, 2020. “They’re not people who have a lot of resources, and many are women of color and immigrant women,” Gandal-Powers said. When it comes to affordable birth control, “that’s who I am particularly concerned about.” (Alvarado, the Becket executive director, told Vox that no employees at Little Sisters have complained about the lack of birth control coverage, and that they are able to get the medications for reasons other than contraception, such as treating endometriosis.) And by stripping away employer coverage, the decision could drive more patients to the Title X program — which has already been decimated by the Trump administration. “There are going to be people who aren’t going to be able to get their birth control,” Gandal-Powers said. “That is going to be the bottom line.” All told, the administration’s actions, coupled with a pandemic and an economic recession, threaten to erode many of the gains of the past 10 years when it comes to reducing unintended pregnancy and ensuring that people have access to the most effective forms of birth control. Nationwide data on unintended pregnancies during the Trump administration is not yet available, but experts say actions at the state level provide a glimpse of what could happen to the entire country. In 2011, for example, Texas began a multi-pronged campaign to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, by cutting the state’s entire family planning budget, excluding Planned Parenthood from Medicaid, and ultimately exiting the federal Title X program. One in four family planning clinics around the state (many of which were not even operated by Planned Parenthood) closed. And counties that lost a Planned Parenthood clinic saw a 36 percent reduction in the provision of LARCs. The cuts increased both teen birth and abortion rates, according to an analysis by economist Analisa Packham. Now, the entire country may be moving in the direction of Texas. And by the time the effects of Trump administration policies show up in nationwide data, it may be too late to reverse them — even if a future administration wanted to. After all, Salganicoff said, “when services go away, it’s not like you flip a switch and they start again.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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How do you cover a presidential campaign during a pandemic?
Doug Chayka for Vox What happens when the campaign trail is an ethernet cable? Olivia Nuzzi was covering a Donald Trump rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this summer when the New York magazine reporter had an idea. Why not go talk to the Trump fans at the gathering, most of whom had been spending hours packed together, mask-free? Then she reconsidered. “I’m not going over there today. I’m not fucking going over there and talking to people who don’t have masks on,” she recalls thinking. “I don’t think the news value of my dumb little idea of a news story is worth the risk.” Interviewing a campaign rally attendee is a staple of campaign journalism. But not in 2020. In addition to killing 200,000 Americans and putting millions out of work, the pandemic has upended how campaigns are run — just like everything else, they’ve now mostly moved online — which means it’s changed the way they are covered. Which isn’t necessarily bad. But it is unsettling for many political journalists (again: join the club) who are trying to figure out how to do their job in the most unusual of circumstances. And they’re thinking about what all of this means — both for this year and for future campaigns. “You’re just seeing the press release that goes out, you’re tuning into the livestream of the speech, you’re making as many phone calls as possible,” says BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer, who is covering her third presidential campaign this year — and has been in her Brooklyn apartment, except for a single trip to see Joe Biden accept the Democratic nomination, since March. The question that journalists and politician, and eventually voters will have to reckon with is whether the distance between the reporters and the people they’re writing about matters: If you can’t be on the road with Joe Biden because Joe Biden’s not on the road, does it make a difference in what people are going to learn about Joe Biden between now and November 3? And if it doesn’t, should journalists and politicians permanently rethink the way campaigns are run and covered, even when we can (hopefully) gather in person again? A standard pandemic cliché, at this point, is to note that it has accelerated a shift that was already underway. Go ahead and use campaign journalism as another example. You may have a hazy understanding that the most important coverage comes from Important Journalists who travel alongside candidates on the trail, pestering them and their staff for tidbits of news, access, and interviews. That’s the idea behind Boys on the Bus, Tim Crouse’s famous book about the 1972 presidential campaign and the men who covered it. But that notion hasn’t synced up with reality for some time. Yes, sometimes candidates say things at campaign events that become news stories, and may even affect their candidacy — think of Mitt Romney dismissing 47 percent of American voters in 2012, or Hillary Clinton dismissing Trump voters as “deplorables” in 2016. But there aren’t many of those moments, and they certainly don’t have much to do with day-to-day campaign trail reporting. Which is one of the reasons why reporters who cover candidates on the road in recent campaigns have been “embeds.” They tend to be earlier in their careers and lower in the journalistic pecking order (and more likely to put up with the indignities of constant travel). More important, though, is that campaigns have realized they can use Twitter, Instagram, livestreams, and any other tech they want to bypass reporters and go straight to their intended audience. Reporters who travel with the campaign can be tolerated, but they’re much less likely to get access to the candidate. “The curtain at the front of the plane separating the senior staff from the press corps has been drawn for a couple of campaigns now,” says Peter Hamby, a former CNN reporter. He says the utility of the campaign trail coverage has been minimal for years. The shift was clear enough for Hamby to see back in 2013, when he produced a 95-page research report titled “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?” Hamby apparently reached his own conclusion: He’s now Snapchat’s chief political correspondent, and does little reporting from the campaign trail. “It was a visceral thing to watch” So even without a virus tearing through America, you’d hear and see reporters talking about the way campaign coverage has been, and should be, changing in 2020. But the strain of working in the pandemic underscores the weirdness. Now you not only have to question the value of interviewing a Trump voter at a Trump rally — it’s a Trump voter at a Trump rally, so what could they say that would surprise you at this point? — you have to worry about whether doing so will make you sick. And that internal discussion is happening after years of Trump himself, who has overturned every bit of conventional political wisdom, going back to his initial campaign. In 2015, for instance, everyone knew that the one thing you couldn’t do in American politics is to cast aspersions on decorated, wounded veterans. But Trump announced that Sen. John McCain, shot down in Vietnam, held in captivity and tortured for years, was “not a war hero,” because Trump liked “people who weren’t captured.” For any other candidate, in any other year, that would have been the end of the campaign — and precisely the reason you cover every word a presidential candidate says. But now, we’ve learned that this stuff is intrinsic to Trump. You expect it. You hear it all the time. Why bother going on the road to hear him say it again? Because maybe you’ll still learn something, say reporters who’ve worked the campaign trail. Yes, you can see a lot of the campaign on Twitter and TV. But if you’re not there, they say, you can’t get the details that let you know what’s really going on — or at least the details that make a great story. “Texture” is the word that comes up a lot. “It’s sort of like this intangible quality that’s only present in person,” says Cramer. “And it has to do with a feeling inside a room, or the way campaign staff are shuffling back and forth in the hallway while the candidate is speaking.” Cramer recalls a scene from this year’s Democratic primary, as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy evaporated over the course of a couple days: “I remember getting off the bus and seeing one of Sanders’ senior people visibly shaking. He was shaking from the realization of what was happening, and there was nothing he could do to change it. It was a visceral thing to watch.” That scene made it into her story about the campaign’s collapse. “Every story I wrote, it was hugely beneficial to be on the road,” says Amy Chozick, the New York Times reporter assigned to the Hillary Clinton campaign from 2015 to 2016; Chozick says she traveled 523 days during that stretch. “There’s huge value in seeing the candidate that you’re covering every single day — if Hillary changed two words in a speech, I would know,” she says. And being around an event is different than watching an event. Chozick said she could sense a swell of emotion and excitement, which the Clinton campaign hadn’t generated much of before, in the last two weeks of the 2016 campaign — which she readily admits didn’t tell you anything about how Clinton fared on Election Day. Campaign reporters also lament that limited travel and limited events mean limited chances to talk to voters at those events. Yes, someone who goes to a Trump event isn’t representative of the electorate — it’s someone who likes Trump so much they’ll leave their house to go see him. Still, “you’re able to interview voters, and see how they’re responding. I basically haven’t had the chance to talk to any voters at any rally, to see what they think” about campaign messaging, says Alex Thompson, who is covering the election for Politico from afar. “I’ve been stuck in DC. I’m not going to go through the phone book of Milwaukee and call voters.” Instead, Thompson says, he’s trying to figure out how to cover something that’s happening virtually. In a normal year, he says, he’d be trying to figure out how to sneak into a volunteer training session for a Democratic door-knocking campaign; now he says he’s “sneaking into a virtual digital training session, about how to text and share things on Facebook.” The Times’s Maggie Haberman, who covered the Trump campaign in 2016 and followed him to the White House, has plenty of access to people around Trump. But she also misses talking to regular humans. “One thing that I think is missing from the coverage right now is that you can get more of a sense for parts of the race by being in person, talking to voters,” she says. “That I really do miss. I really got a lot out of voters when I talked to them.” The gotta-see-it-live faction is getting more of their wish lately. Over the last few weeks, Trump has revived his campaign rallies, which give him a chance to rile up his base and antagonize everyone else. Just days ago, Trump gloated to a crowd in Minnesota about watching MSNBC reporter Ali Velshi get injured during a protest; since then he’s also been to Ohio and Pennsylvania, where his crowds were large, densely packed and largely unmasked. But cable TV networks no longer reflexively cover them live, and Trump’s provocations don’t make news — perhaps because the news has plenty of other things to cover, like mass death and unemployment. Joe Biden, meanwhile, has made very few public appearances at all — a move that’s partly a concession to a virus that thrives in large gatherings, and partly a calculation that he’ll be better off letting Trump talk his way out of votes. Meanwhile, there are plenty of journalists who say the absence of live events hasn’t made a difference in coverage — or, crucially, in the way the public learns about the candidates. “I think the idea that it’s tremendously valuable to your understanding of an election, to be able to go and shoot the shit with a mid-level communications flack at a bar, is overstated,” says New York’s Nuzzi. Though she did that kind of reporting herself during the 2016 campaign — and this one too. In February, for instance, she filed from the lobby of the Marriott in Des Moines, Iowa, where lots of mid-level campaigners were bemoaning that state’s caucus debacle. But by August, after the general campaign had been almost entirely shut down for months, Nuzzi decided she’d have a better chance of understanding Trump’s reelection chances if she got on the road and visited campaign staff and volunteers in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state. In a series of vignettes, Nuzzi describes finding nearly empty election offices and campaign events. In one of them, she drops by a training session for volunteers in Harrisburg: I imagined a lot of Trump supporters, maskless and seated close together, breathing heavily on a reporter leaning in to record their comments. But the office was quiet. I walked through the arch of books by right-wing personalities (Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh) and past the portraits (George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan) and maps of Pennsylvania voting precincts. I didn’t see anyone there. If this had been a normal campaign, Nuzzi said, she would have never gotten in her car. “I wouldn’t have thought about it. There would have been so many rallies to go to.” You’re watching TV. Are you also covering the election? The 2020 general election hasn’t been completely virtual. In place of their usual, week-long summer conventions — impossible to pull off in a social-distancing era — both candidates staged muted, made-for TV presentations that used both live and taped segments to make their case to the country (or, at least, people who watch political conventions). Normally reporters flock to the Democratic and Republican conventions because it’s a rare chance to get extended face time with a wide swath of Important Political People. But since very few people, period, actually showed up live in Wilmington, Delaware, where Biden’s event was anchored, reporters who attended the event had little to do. One of the most striking moments I’ve seen in this year’s campaign was Kamala Harris’s DNC speech — not because of the content but because of the context. The vice presidential nominee stood on a stage, at a podium, just like a normal speech. But when the camera pulled back, you could see the room she was in was nearly empty, save for a handful of socially-distanced reporters, taking notes on a speech they could have watched on their couch. Just like I was doing. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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9 experts reflect on the US reaching 200,000 Covid-19 deaths
Christina Animashaun/Vox Public health experts explain what went wrong in America’s coronavirus response. This week, the number of Americans confirmed to have died from Covid-19 crossed 200,000. It is a staggering loss of life, and this unfortunate milestone warrants some reflection. In that spirit, I asked a question of several of the public health experts whose knowledge I have relied upon over the last six months: If you had been told back in February (when the first Covid-19 death in the US was recorded) that before the end of September 200,000 more people would be dead, what would your reaction have been? “I thought we would be much more resilient in our public health, our policymaking, and trust in public health leaders,” Albert Ko, a Yale School of Public Health professor, told me. “I would have thought we would have done a better job protecting our nursing homes.” I thought I would share the responses in full, with some light editing for clarity. Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation: My February self was indeed worried. Things were escalating fast and I increasingly believed, from reviewing the emerging data, that the U.S. was barreling toward treacherous territory. However, I in no way envisioned we would get to 200,000 deaths. In part because that was not (yet) the scale being discussed but also because this was not inevitable. Many of these deaths could have been prevented, if the response had been different. Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation: It was really hard in February to imagine there would be 200,000 dead in the US in a matter of months. After all, the first state emergency declaration in the US didn’t come until the end of February (in Washington), and we didn’t know the extent of the disease in Italy, Iran, and other places. It wasn’t until March that the Imperial College model was released (projecting the potential for a million deaths or more in the US), the NBA shut down, Tom Hanks was infected, etc. We didn’t know about the US testing debacle yet. Stay-at-home orders were not yet being talked about. So back in February I don’t think it had dawned on most just how bad things could get. Even so, looking back it’s clear that many US deaths could have been prevented with a different national course of action and it’s not like 200,000 deaths was a foregone conclusion at all. David Rehkopf, a social epidemiologist at Stanford University: There are a lot of proximal reasons here specific to how we didn’t react, how people didn’t take it seriously, the lack of universal health care, the distrust of government right now, lack of a clear message that really matter. But I’d like to point out that the US is currently 46th in the world in terms of life expectancy. So why would COVID-19 deaths be any different? All of these same factors that impact our COVID prevalence and COVID deaths also are in many ways similar to what leads to our higher overall deaths as well. But what is important to realize is that is wasn’t always this way in the US. From 1975-1980, we were 17th in the world in life expectancy. But there has been a slow (and recently not so slow) decline since the early 1980s. David Celentano, chair of Johns Hopkins University’s epidemiology department: Shocked – that would be the word that I would say captures my response to our current death numbers from the vantage point of February. By mid-March we were locked down. The doubling time of numbers of infections has truly shown we are not serious in regard to a national approach to COVID-19. This represents the failure of the national leadership, the failings of the executive branch, the emasculation and politicization of the CDC and FDA, and the skepticism of science by large segments of the public, egged on by the president. My guess is that we will be at 400,000 by the close of the year; I certainly hope not. Kumi Smith, an epidemiology professor at the University of Minnesota: The things that have surprised me most in hindsight: - That it took so long for the US CDC to develop and distribute a test. Precious time was lost as they tried to recover from the first failed test; this set us on a whole different epidemic trajectory. - That the White House would ever try to assume the role of public health messenger to the public. And that the CDC has taken as much of a back seat as it has. There’s a protocol for issuing out consistent and up-to-date public health messaging to the public but you wouldn’t know it from how things have gone. - That mask wearing would become so politicized (though someone did recently share with me a story about anti-maskers during the 1918 pandemic so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised). If you take into account all of these things, the death toll is sadly not all that surprising. Eleanor Murray, a Boston University epidemiologist: In February, I was definitely watching COVID carefully, but I also felt confident that the administration would activate a coordinated epidemic response and that such a response would control the spread of the virus relatively quickly and successfully. Clearly I was very wrong about that. Not only was there no clear coordinated response, many of the pandemic preparations that had been made over the previous two decades had been scrapped, canceled, or left to lapse/ expire, making it difficult for other levels of government to step in to the leadership void. I made a tweet sometime in February in response to someone asking for a prediction of what COVID would look like that said something like: right now our best guess for what will happen is to look at historical examples of similar outbreaks – those are SARS & MERS and both were pretty much contained by one year out; not at all like the 1918 flu. I still think that at the time that was a reasonable prediction, given what we knew, but it’s clear that the pandemic has not played out like SARS or MERS. Some of that has to do with features of the virus – the presence of pre-symptomatic spread makes control much harder for SARS-CoV-2 than for SARS. But a lot of it has to do with failures in response. Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University: In February, I knew 200,000 deaths were theoretically possible, but I honestly didn’t believe we’d get to that point. Surely we’d get it under control well before that level of mortality, right? I hadn’t anticipated not only the lack of federal response, but the active undermining of our federal scientific leadership within the CDC, FDA, and NIH. I had expected a potentially bumpy road, and resistance from anti-science folk (though I anticipated that being directed toward the vaccine; I hadn’t considered mask mandates in February), but not this level of dysfunction that we’ve seen only amplify since early in the epidemic. Caitlin Rivers, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: I think we started off on the wrong foot with our struggles to scale diagnostic testing and identify cases. By the time community transmission was first recognized, I think we already had substantial outbreaks underway. We fell behind and have struggled to catch up ever since, though for more reasons than just diagnostic testing shortages. There have been gaps in the federal response, notably a lack of clear overall strategy. Although state and local leaders have done the best they can, I think a lack of a national approach has held us back. Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida: In the spring, I participated in a series of expert surveys facilitated by Nick Reich and colleagues at UMass. I was able to look back and see what I had put for predictions. My May predictions for the year-end totals are below. So by December, we will likely exceed my 90th percentile prediction. It is sad. I expected that this would be challenging, but I didn’t expect how desensitized we as a country would become to over 1,000 Americans dying a day. The goalposts keep moving, and what once seemed unimaginable is now a daily reality. Sometimes I think it is worth reminding people that we have various models to forecast cumulative deaths, but infectious diseases are not the weather. What ultimately will happen depends upon our actions, and so much more death does not need to be foretold. What more can we be doing to keep people safe? Be it testing, tracing, ventilation, mask-wearing, finding safer alternatives to activities. And demanding greater action from our politicians to make this possible. This story appears in VoxCare, a newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Sign up to get VoxCare in your inboxalong with more health care stats and news. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Marvel pushes Black Widow to 2021, delaying the MCU’s future even further
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow, which has been delayed twice now. | Marvel Studios/Disney Shang-Chi and The Eternals, the beginnings of Marvel’s Phase 4 set of movies, will be delayed as well. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been stopped in its tracks until 2021. On Wednesday, Variety reported that Disney has again delayed the release of Black Widow, the next scheduled Marvel film, from November 6, 2020, to May 7, 2021. That’s the second delay for the film, which stars Scarlett Johansson as her Avengers character. It was originally scheduled for a May 1, 2020, release, before the Covid-19 pandemic led Disney to bump it to the fall. Now the film will premiere more than a year after its original date. And with Black Widow’s rescheduling comes a domino effect for the other Marvel films in the queue: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals. Eternals had been moved from a November 6, 2020, release to February 12, 2021. Now it has again moved to November 5, 2021. Shang-Chi was first scheduled for February 12, then moved to May 7. It will now premiere on July 9. The delay of these three movies is just the latest in a series of postponements and reactions to the worldwide pandemic. Movie theaters involve large gatherings of people, and while many theaters are now open again in the US and around the world, there isn’t a general feeling that everyone’s ready to go back to seeing movies the way we used to before the coronavirus. That “let’s all go to the movies” moment may not even come until there’s an accessible and successful vaccine. For studios like Disney, which owns Marvel, lockdowns and social distancing have created a situation where they must decide between a few options: delay a movie; release a movie anyway; or maybe release a movie directly onto a streaming service like Disney+. Disney released New Mutants, a long-delayed X-Men spinoff it acquired when the company bought Twentieth Century Fox, in theaters in August. Disney then chose to release Mulan, first slated for theaters in March, at a premium on its Disney+ streaming service and in some theaters worldwide earlier this month. New Mutants hauled in $35 million worldwide, and while Mulan’s official digital download haul has yet to be released, it’s only made $57 million in its international box office — a disappointing figure when you consider it cost around $200 million to make. The lack of box office enthusiasm and low prospects for budget recuperation, as well as factors like some theaters not being open and people still having qualms about sitting in a theater for two hours, may be the reason Marvel decided to push Black Widow to 2021. But because this is Marvel, and Marvel has a connected universe and a lengthy schedule of movies ahead, a Black Widow push means a push for every subsequent Marvel film. Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first superhero movie with a predominantly Asian and Asian-American cast, was originally set to follow Black Widow’s and Eternals’ 2020 releases. Both Shang-Chi and Eternals, the latter of which is helmed by award-winning director Chloé Zhao, are set to introduce new characters to the MCU and perhaps give us more forward-looking stories than Black Widow will. (Black Widow is a prequel of sorts, and takes place before the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.) Eternals also stars big-name actors including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, and Kumail Nanjiani, fueling further interest. There’s an added layer of excitement surrounding that film because of Zhao’s talent and rising profile. Zhao’s new film Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, is set for a December 4 release and is considered an Oscar frontrunner after winning the coveted Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. With these delays, the first glimpse into a post-Endgame Marvel Universe may be the weird and wacky Disney+ TV series WandaVision. It has no release date yet but is expected to hit Disney+ by the end of this year. Marvel has said its television shows will tie into the movie universe — a universe we’ll have to wait a few more months to pick back up again. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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One officer charged, 2 others not indicted in Breonna Taylor’s killing
People gather in Louisville, Kentucky, awaiting word on charges against police officers on September 23. | Darron Cummings/AP Officer Brett Hankison has been charged with first-degree “wanton endangerment.” After a months-long investigation into the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a Jefferson County grand jury announced on Wednesday that it would indict one officer in the shooting death of the 26-year-old EMT. Former Louisville Metro police officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment,which by Kentucky law means he consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk. The two other officer who fired shots that night — Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove — were not indicted. Ahead of the announcement, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer instituted a 72-hour curfew beginning Wednesday night at 9 pm, while Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Robert J. Schroeder announced a state of emergency for the police force on Tuesday in anticipation of riots and protests. The police also restricted access to downtown Louisville beginning on Tuesday, according to the Courier Journal. The Kentucky National Guard was activated on Wednesday afternoon. The nation has been awaiting the decision in the criminal investigation all summer. It’s been nearly 200 days since Taylor was shot dead by police while she was asleep in her apartment on March 13. When news of the incident drew attention in early May and picked up steam after the death of George Floyd later that month, protests broke out across the country. Over time, the phrase “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry for activists — as well as the focal point of countless memes. The phrase was plastered on T-shirts worn by athletes at sporting events and big-name actors at the Emmys. Many pointed out that Black women killed by police don’t often receive as much attention, or justice, in matters of police violence, and now was the time to correct that. Darron Cummings/AP The scene outside Jefferson Square where people were awaiting word on charges against police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor. In the days leading up to Cameron’s announcement, Taylor’s mother, Tamika L. Palmer urged the attorney general to charge all of the officers involved in the shooting — Brett Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove. “It’s crunch time, and we’re putting our faith and trust in you,” Palmer wrote in an Instagram post directed at Cameron. “Do you have the power and courage to call my child yours, the power to see that my cry and my community’s cry is heard, and the power as part of a village who raises our children to do right by one of our daughters?!” On the night of her death, police relied on a no-knock warrant to enter Taylor’s apartment in search of two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. While police say they announced themselves, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who was inside the apartment at the time, disputes that claim. Police fired 20 rounds into the apartment, hitting Taylor eight times. In a lawsuit filed in late April, Taylor’s family alleged excessive force and gross negligence on the part of the officers who fired their weapons into Taylor’s apartment that night. A court filing submitted by the family in July alleged that Taylor did not receive emergency medical aid after she was shot, and that the drug raid on her apartment was part of a government-backed development scheme to clear out a block in Taylor’s neighborhood. A week ago, the city of Louisville announced that it had reached a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family and attorneys — the largest sum the city has ever paid out for a police misconduct suit. While the settlement included a list of police reforms, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said it was not an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the city’s part. Cameron was assigned the case as special prosecutor in May and in the past five months revealed very few details about the independent investigation. “To all those involved in this case, you have my commitment that our office is undertaking a thorough and fair investigation,” he said. “This is also a commitment that I’m making to the Louisville community, which has suffered tremendously in the days since March 13,” he said in mid-June. During the course of the investigation, the Louisville Metro Police Department terminated Hankison because he “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired ten rounds into Taylor’s apartment, according to his termination letter. Mattingly and Cosgrove were placed on administrative reassignment. Throughout the protests, activists have also pressed lawmakers to defund the local police department. While the Louisville’s Metro Council did vote unanimously to ban no-knock warrants in June, it also approved a budget that wouldn’t even begin to defund LMPD. The new spending plan will merely “require police to put the money toward recruiting a more diverse force, additional training and exploring co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Taylor’s death is also being investigated by the FBI for civil rights violations. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Troubled Blood sees J.K. Rowling at the mercy of all her worst impulses
J.K. Rowling at HBO’s Finding The Way Home world premiere at Hudson Yards on December 11, 2019, in New York City. | Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images In her latest detective novel, Rowling spends most of her time explaining why she’s mad at modern feminism. J.K. Rowling’s latest novel made headlines for generating controversy well before its US release date of September 29. That’s becauseTroubled Blood, the newest installment of the detective series Rowling publishes under the pen name Robert Galbraith, features a serial killer who lures his victims into a false sense of security by dressing as a woman. Fears of a bad man in a dress are one of the main justifications for anti-trans legislation across the globe. In the US and the UK over the past few years, that’s taken the form of the bathroom bill controversies: Trans people want to be able to use public restrooms and changing rooms that correspond to their gender identity. But opponents argue that if trans people were allowed to use the public bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity, women and children will undoubtedly be menaced by sexual predators using this legal loophole to ogle women in their most vulnerable state. In practice, however, US states that have allowed trans people to use the facilities corresponding to their gender have seen no increase in sexual harassment or assault in public restrooms. Rowling, however, has stated that it is “the simple truth” that allowing trans women to use women’s bathrooms will lead to violent men using those loopholes to attack “natalgirls and women.” She began outlining her views on gender in a series of tweets last fall, then elaborated on them in a long essay published this June. There, Rowling perpetuated a series of outdated myths about trans people while repeatedly stating that she’s not transphobic, because she knows and likes trans people. She just also thinks that trans women aren’t real women, that they’re taking advantage of resources meant for “biological women,” and that they are enabling predatory men to commit violence against those “biological women.” To be clear, regardless of Rowling’s personal feelings toward trans people, all of the ideas she expressed in her essay are transphobic. They actively seek to take rights away from trans people, and they treat trans identity as something that is up for debate, rather than an intrinsic part of human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity. But Rowling has threatened to sue publications who describe her and her views as transphobic, forcing at least one children’s site to issue a public apology. So to some critics, Troubled Blood is just the latest sign of J.K. Rowling’s increasingly outspoken and retrograde ideas about gender. Others havecountered that the book contains no trans characters, that detractorswere judging the book without reading it, and that dismissing Troubled Blood before its publication over worries about a trope is cancel culture at its worst. What it would mean to cancel J.K. Rowling, a billionaire with theme park attractions built around her intellectual property, remains unclear. But in any case, Troubled Blood debuted at No. 1 in the UK. I’ve read all of Troubled Blood’smany pages, and I can say that this book is transphobic. But it’s also just not very good. What Troubled Blood is, above all else, is an example of Rowling at the mercy of all her worst impulses. Troubled Blood is the fifth volume in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, a series of noir-inflected murder mysteries. The name of the series comes from their protagonist, a grizzled army police officer-turned-private detective named Cormoran Strike, who solves crimes with his partner/obvious eventual love interest, Robin. The Cormoran Strike books have never been perfect, but they’re usually fun. The part of writing that Rowling is best at is constructing a mystery, so her whodunnits are always absorbing and twisty. And writing under a (masculine) pen name seems to grant Rowling freedom to be playful and flippant in a way she hasn’t been since the very first Harry Potter novels. (Rowling published the first volume in the Strike series, 2015’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, in genuine anonymity. She was unmasked a few months after the book came out, but she’s continued to use her Robert Galbraith pen name for all the books in the series that have followed.) But Troubled Blood is not fun, and it’s not playful. It feels bloated and resentful, turgid with an ethos of grim duty. It’s the writing of someone who feels she has no choice but to bring some home truths to you, the reader, and damn the consequences. Troubled Blood also reads like nothing so much as astylisticsequel to Rowling’s incredibly boring 2012 novel Casual Vacancy. Casual Vacancy was a dour class satire that seemed to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to be taken seriously as an author of literary fiction for adults. Troubled Blood seems to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to share her political opinions on feminism and other gender issues with the world. It features Strike and Robin setting out together to solve the disappearance of one Margot Bamborough, a feminist doctor who vanished from the world in 1974. The police strongly suspected that Margot was abducted by the serial killer Dennis Creed (the one who wears women’s clothes), but they were never able to solve the case. And now,40 years later, Margot’s daughter Anna — a lesbian, Rowling notes with an air of triumph, as if to say, see, she’s not homophobic — has hired Strike and Robin to try to bring her closure on the mystery once and for all. Over the course of the year-long investigation that ensues, Strike and Robin manage to establish the following: Fourth-wave feminism, with its Slut Walks and pro-porn stance, is nothing but a bunch of idiotic children having airy, academic discussions about words, while enabling the sexual assault of women and the sex trafficking of children. In contrast, Margot’s brand of ’70s second-wave feminism was correct and righteous, except for its lamentable pro-choice stance. (All sympathetic characters in Troubled Blood, except for poor misguided Margot, are pro-contraception but anti-abortion.) Moreover, women are all bound together by their biological destiny, which leaves them in danger of being victimized by predatory men. And the most dangerous predator of all is the predator who cloaks themselves in femininity. This final category of dangerous predators includes Creed the serial killer, who is obsessed with women’s clothing. Creed wears a wig and a women’s coat and lipstick to abduct his victims, because his disguisemakes the drunk women he targets perceive him first as another woman and then as a harmless drag queen. But his interest in cross-dressing isn’t purely utilitarian. He also steals trophy garments from his victims and masturbates into them. “I felt I stole something of their essence from them,” says Creed of his penchant for taking women’s underwear, “taking that which they thought private and hidden.” (Per Rowling’s Galbraith website, Creed is loosely based on two real serial killers. Per the Guardian, both of them stole women’s clothes from their victims, and one of the two may have worn them, although the evidence there seems to be fuzzy.) But there are other predators besides Creed in this most dangerous category of deceptive femininity, and one of them manages to fool Strike. “Like the women who’d climbed willingly into Dennis Creed’s van,” Strike muses of this villain at the end of Troubled Blood, “he’d been hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity.” This particular predator who manages to best Strike is cis. But within the world of Troubled Blood, it’s this predator’s cold-blooded and inauthentic performance of femininity that makes them monstrous. And in her nonfiction writing, Rowling has strongly suggested that she believes trans women are cold-bloodedly performing a gender identity that does not truly belong to them, and that, in the process, they are stealing away resources that exist to help what Rowling calls “biological women” cope with the world’s misogyny. In Troubled Blood, the overt performance of gender is done with an eye to deceive, to misdirect, to harm. Cis women may experiment with their femininity — there’s a recurring motif that sees Robin test driving different perfumes as she decides what kind of woman she wants to be in the wake of her divorce — but men who take an interest in femininity are dismissed even by open-minded Robin as “camp.” Meanwhile, the good gay man who Robin lives with is clean-cut enough to get an acting job playing a straight army vet. Anna the good lesbian is non-threateningly feminine, by which Rowling usually means pretty. (When Rowling writes a woman in touch with her masculine side, the result tends to look like Harry Potter’s wicked Aunt Marge.) And anyone in this book who wields their gender across boundaries with deliberate intent is a monster. All of these political ideas are what Troubled Blood is, broadly speaking, “about:” They are where the narrative tension lies, where the juice of the book is. But Troubled Blood is also ostensibly a murder mystery, and the murder plot provides the skeleton from which the political ideas are hung. So is it a good murdermystery? Not really. It is way, way, way too fucking long. Rowling’s always had a tendency to go long and sprawling whenever the pressure is on. The Harry Potter books turned into doorstoppers with Goblet of Fire, right at the time they’d become such a phenomenon that the midnight release parties were starting. And Troubled Blood, which comes just as Rowling is beginning to speak more and more publicly about her views on gender, is even longer than they are, clocking in at a hefty 927 pages long, and with the plot stretchedout across a full year. Within that year, Strike and Robin sift their way through innumerable red herrings. Ordinarily, this is a part of plotting at which Rowling excels; she’s very good at flashy authorial sleight of hand, directing the reader’s attention this way while she seeds the information that will turn out to be vital just where you’re not looking. But in this case, the red herrings pile on so heavily and for so long that they begin to feel meaningless. There’s no pleasure to be had in trying to sort through them to figure out what’s worth paying attention to and what can be discarded, because there’s just more information than any reader could possibly hold on to. I began to feel unpleasantly reminded of that part of Deathly Hallows that turns into a long, sad, pointless camping trip where nothing happens: Are we really just checking every random tree in this forest for clues? That’s how we’re going to solve this one? But in a way, the plotting in Troubled Blood is even less satisfying than it is in Deathly Hallows and its fellows. While the second half of the Harry Potter series is bloated, there’s still pleasure to be had in those books from all the genre-blending Rowling is doing. When the mystery fails, the fun of the magic and the friendships and the boarding school coziness can take over. Maybe you don’t particularly care about where Voldemort’s Horcruxes are, but there’s still magical camping and teen angst and wizarding revolutionary radiosto be had, right? Maybe you’re getting distracted by the frankly wild ethics of the house-elves and their slavery, but boy, that Marauder’s Map sure is a blast, right? In Troubled Blood, when the mystery falters and you aren’t taken by the political ideas animating it, what’s left for you to care about is the long slow-burn romance between Robin and Strike. And I do more or less want Robin and Strike to be together, in the same way I sort of vaguely wanted Ron and Hermione to be together but never particularly bothered too much over it either way. But I definitely don’t care about them one-thousand-pages-of-refusing-to-talk-about-feelings much. At this point, with both of them single and both of them gazing endlessly at each other, what is even keeping them apart anymore? It’s exhausting just to contemplate. There’s a plotline in the Cormoran Strike books that I’ve been thinking about ever since Rowling first began to talk about trans issues in public. Other critics have already discussed the way she treated trans women in the second volume of the series, The Silk Worm. In that book, the two trans women Strike meets in the course of his investigation are ostensibly sympathetic characters, but Strike treats them as mockable. When one of them isn’t forthcoming with the information he wants, he casually threatens her with prison rape. But what’s been haunting me is a subplot from the series’s third volume, Career of Evil. In Career of Evil, Strike’s investigation leads him to a subculture built around people who want to become physically disabled. On hidden forums, they discuss the operations they plan to get in order to manifest the disabilities they believe they already spiritually possess, and they complain bitterly that the rest of the world doesn’t understand their plight. Does anyone think they would choose to live like this, with such inaccessible and easily mocked desires? Don’t people understand that they were born with these wishes, that these desires are an intrinsic part of their identity? Strike, who lost a leg in the war, takes this group’s obsession personally. He is incensed and offended by them. How dare they try to playact at an identity which became his so painfully, at such great cost? How dare they try to appropriate his own personal, private pain? He has lunch with two people from the forum, and they rudely force him to pay while ordering the most expensive options on the menu. One of them is in a wheelchair. Strike at last loses his patience and pushes her out of the chair, only to find that she can walk just fine without it. I don’t know what’s going on in J.K. Rowling’s mind or how she sees the world. But she writes about trans people the way Strike thinks about this particular subculture: as people appropriating a disability — and Rowling does write about womanhood, and its attendant dangers, as if it were a disability — that is rightfully hers. And that idea is becoming more and more central to every book she writes. I don’t know what to do with J.K. Rowling anymore. I don’t know what anyone should do with her and her books. I don’t believe that it’s sustainable or valuable or even really possible to ask every author you follow to enact some sort of ideologically pure, progressive worldview in every book they write. Most readers, I think, would agree with me on that. That’s part of why so many readers stuck with Rowling despite the politics embedded in the subtext of the Harry Potter novels, which have always been centrist at best, and through the increasing crankiness of the Cormoran Strike series. I don’t think that you have to throw away the Harry Potter series to prove you’re a good person. I don’t know if it’s even possible to avoid those books: They’re so embedded into the grid of pop culture by this point that they feel like a utility, like an electric company. How do you avoid electricity every single day without becoming a hermit? How do you choose to throw out a series you grew up on, that you built beloved childhood memories around? Every reader has to have their own dividing line between what they are willing to work with and what they are not. Every reader has to choose the way they will approach a text, and what they’re going to take out of it and what they’ll leave behind. And that’s a choice you have to make for yourself. I’ve written positively about the Cormoran Strike books before, despite what happened to the trans women in book two and that bizarre trans-disability subplot in book three, and despite that ongoing thing where Rowling always treats fat people as inherently grotesque and probably evil. I thought the mysteries were fun, and I found it easy to ignore the politics. That was a choice I was used to making after growing up on Harry Potter, and because I am a thin cis non-disabled woman, it was easy for me to make that choice without thinking too hard about it. But I can’t ignore the politics of Troubled Blood, and I don’t think that’s just because of all of the essays and tweets Rowling’s written over the past year. I think that’s because the politics are the only part of Troubled Blood she really cares about, and that shows in the writing. So here is what I do know. Troubled Blood is a book in which aesthetics have been rendered subordinate to politics. There is no “there” there besides Rowling’s political ideas. And those ideas are reactionary and hateful. I don’t see anything left in this book worth sticking around for.
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Who should get the Covid-19 vaccine first? The equality vs. equity debate, explained.
Should we drive more Covid-19 vaccine doses toward the countries with the greatest disease burden, so we save as many lives as possible? | Getty Images Some ethicists are taking issue with the World Health Organization’s proposal. When we finally find a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine, every nation in the world will want it. But for a while, there won’t be enough to go around. So who should get access to the first doses? One way to answer that question is to say: The nations that discover the vaccine — or that can pay those who discover it — will get first dibs. All the other nations will just have to wait until more doses can be manufactured. This is “vaccine nationalism,” where every nation just looks out for itself, prioritizing its citizens without regard to what happens to the citizens of lower-income countries that can’t afford to buy up doses. It’s a path that most ethicists think is wrong. It’s also the path the United States is currently on. September 18 was the deadline for governments around the world to join the COVAX Facility, a unique financing mechanism that asks countries to pool their resources together so that humanity has a better shot at discovering a successful vaccine quickly. In return, all participating countries are promised that when that day comes, they’ll get equal access to the vaccine. Some 156 countries signed agreements with COVAX, representing 64 percent of the global population. The US did not. “Bad! Bad!” is how Ezekiel Emanuel, a medical ethics expert at the University of Pennsylvania, characterized America’s decision. “This is an opportunity for low- and middle-income countries to get a vaccine and not just have it as a rich boys’ club,” he told me. Ruth Faden, founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, also bemoaned the decision. “It’s just incredibly shoot-yourself-in-the-foot,” on two levels, she said. Economically, Faden argues,it’s in America’s self-interest to help ensure every other country’s population is vaccinated, because until the fear of Covid-19 dissipates, trade and travel won’t go back to normal. And health-wise, nobody is safe until everybody is safe. That’s because any Covid-19 vaccine we find is not going to be 100 percent effective. It can’t fully protect everyone from getting infected, so one infected traveler entering the US can still cause an outbreak. For these moral and pragmatic reasons, ethicists generally reject vaccine nationalism (though some think it’s fine for a government to prioritize its citizens within certain limits). Instead, they say we should think about distributive justice, figuring out how to get lifesaving resources to every human being in a fair way. But that unobjectionable-sounding notion actually obscures a key question, one that ethicists are now fiercely debating: When we say we want to distribute a vaccine fairly, do we care more about equality or about equity? Equality would mean each country gets the same proportion of vaccine doses relative to its population size, and at the same rate. Equity would mean we drive more vaccine doses to the countries most in need. The distinction between these two approaches — and which one wins out — will shape who gets a vaccine quickly and who’ll have to wait around, hoping they don’t get sick in the meantime. Let’s get clear on each approach, and understand why groups like the World Health Organization are pushing for equality right now, while some ethicists say that’s a mistake. Why the WHO is focusing on equality The WHO is one of three groups leading the COVAX Facility. The other two are Gavi, a public-private partnership that spearheads immunization efforts in developing countries, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations,an international collaboration (formed as a Gates Foundation initiative after the West African Ebola epidemic) to make vaccines available quickly when outbreaks happen. COVAX is kind of like a mutual fund, but for vaccines. It’s creating a diversified portfolio of vaccine candidates (currently, nine are in development and a further nine are under evaluation), the idea being that it’s better to back many candidates, knowing that some won’t pan out. “Very few countries can do what the US is doing: We’re backing seven horses at this point, so we can create our own diversified portfolio,” Faden said. “But many countries don’t have the resources to do that for themselves. This is the answer to that problem.” COVAX asks wealthier countries to fund the development and manufacturing of the vaccine candidates. Lower-income countries don’t have to pay; they’ll be supported through voluntary donations to a dedicated COVAX mechanism called the Advance Market Commitment. COVAX aims to buy and make available 2 billion doses by the end of 2021. If that happens, it’ll be a huge deal. COVAX’s effort to get countries to work with each other instead of against each other could save many lives worldwide. According to Gavi CEO Seth Berkley, it’s the biggest multilateral effort since the Paris climate agreement; certainly, it’s a big step in the right direction. Here’s how the WHO says COVAX allocation should work: Once a safe and effective vaccine is discovered, there should be an initial phase where all participating countries get doses in proportion to their population, at the same rate. Essentially, 3 percent of every country’s population would get access to the vaccine before any country moves on to 4 or 5 percent. This proportional allocation would continue until every country has enough doses to vaccinate 20 percent of its population. The WHO suggests the initial tranche of doses, aiming to cover 3 percent, would likely go to health care workers. The tranche covering 20 percent would likely go to high-risk adults, like older people and those with underlying conditions. (The WHO says 20 percent would be enough to cover these groups in most countries, though some countries have older populations and might need more. They can request enough doses for up to 50 percent of their population, but they won’t receive doses for more than 20 percent until all other countries have been offered that amount.) Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, explained the rationale to a panel of reporters on September 15. “What we’ve done in the Fair Allocation Framework, at least in the first phase, is to go with the principle of equality,” she said. “Because in this case, the disease has spread across the world. It has not spared any country, high-income or low-income, whereas diseases like TB and malaria disproportionately affect low- and middle- income countries.” However, she said that after countries have received enough doses to vaccinate 20 percent of their populations, she expects to shift toward “more allocation to those countries which appear to be needing it much more than other countries” — that is, equity. Pressed as to why COVAX doesn’t adopt an equity model right from the get-go, Swaminathan candidly explained that the reason is pragmatic: If wealthier countries are told they’ll have to wait in line for vaccine doses behind poorer countries, they may reject COVAX. “There’s a big, big risk that if you propose a very idealistic model, you may be left with nothing,” she said. She recalled the 2009 swine flu pandemic, when wealthy countries like the US scooped up most doses of the H1N1 vaccine. Low-income countries couldn’t get access until later, by which point the acute phase of the pandemic was already over. “That’s the historical reality. We are trying to create a new reality,” Swaminathan said. “But you cannot leave behind the high-income countries. To say to them, ‘You don’t have a big problem right now and therefore you don’t need the vaccine,’ may not be acceptable to them because the virus is there and waiting to spring back the moment people go back to normal. … Without their agreement, it’s not going to be successful.” In other words, the WHO is conscious of the politics at play here. Faden co-drafted the WHO’s Values Framework for vaccine allocation, which does list equity among its guiding principles, even though it wouldn’t kick in till later. “Look, there is a real-world problem,” she told me. “We currently live in a global order that is profoundly unjust. We need a strategy that appeals to and works for high-income countries. The COVAX Facility’s principle of simple equality for the first 20 percent is this strategic attempt to incentivize countries to get in — the kind that can pay.” Why some ethicists say we should focus on equity Other ethicists are pushing for a more idealistic framework, one that prioritizes equity from the start. Chief among them is Emanuel, the University of Pennsylvania expert. Even as he participates in several WHO working groups on Covid-19, he’s trying to get the international body and other players to rethink their model. There’s a very obvious problem, he says, with the WHO’s approach: Two countries can have similar-size populations but very different Covid-19 case counts. Should they really both get enough doses to vaccinate 3 percent of their populations right off the bat? Or should we drive more help toward the country with the greatest disease burden, so we save as many lives as possible? Emanuel explained the problem with the former approach via analogy. “Imagine you’re an ER doctor,” he told me. “You’re very busy, so you walk into the ER and say each person gets five minutes of time irrespective of how sick they are. That makes no sense.” In an important paper published September 11 in Science, he and a diverse group of experts propose an alternative framework called the Fair Priority Model. (Though there are a couple of other proposals out there putting forward frameworks for vaccine distribution, this is the only one that offers as substantive a model as the WHO’s.) The experts lay out a plan for distributing the vaccine in three phases. Positing that our main goal should be to avert premature deaths, they suggest using standard expected years of life lost (SEYLL) averted per dose as the criterion in phase one. They say we should give priority to countries that would reduce more SEYLL per dose. In phase two, which aims to reduce pandemic-induced economic deprivation, they give priority to countries that would reduce more SEYLL and reduce more poverty. In phase three, which aims to end community spread, they give priority to countries with higher transmission rates. This model offers a concrete way to reduce serious harms and prioritize disadvantaged people on an international scale. Emanuel said it’s more ethical than the WHO’s current approach. “I wasn’t born yesterday. I understand that sometimes you can’t do exactly what’s ethical because you need to get people to the table,” he told me. “But political expediency is one thing and ethics is another thing. What I object to is claiming this [the WHO approach] is an ethical position. And they do claim that — they use the ethics language of ‘we’re being equitable’ and all this. But that’s not transparent; that’s actually false advertising.” Some might object that Emanuel’s own proposal is not equitable to countries with more elderly citizens: Saving them will save fewer years of life (thus netting less SEYLL per dose), but older citizens are still morally valuable. Emanuel told me that he’s heard this ageism critique “a million times” but that it’s ill-founded.(He has, it may be worth noting, idiosyncraticpersonal views about aging.) He noted thatmany surveys conducted around the world suggest that, all things being equal, the public prioritizes youth over older adults in the distribution of health resources. As a global society, we seem to value investing in youth, both because investing in them when they’re young yields greater dividends later on and because we don’t want to cheat them of the chance at significant life experiences — a deprivation that arguably constitutes a moral harm. Emanuel contends that his group has arrived at the best way to enshrine three fundamental values: benefiting people and limiting harm, prioritizing the disadvantaged, and equal moral concern. “We met every week, arguing, and we had a very diverse group,” he said. “You had utilitarians, you had people who are more Rawlsian, you had cosmopolitans who believe national borders are basically ethically irrelevant, and you had people who believe borders are very relevant. I think our position represents the best of ethics and a consensus about principles that transcends lots of different specific moral commitments.” Ultimately, is this proposal better than the WHO’s? How you answer that depends somewhat on your specific moral commitments. From a utilitarian’s standpoint, for example, whichever proposal will do the best job at maximizing benefit and limiting harm to all people is the best approach. If the WHO’s realpolitik enables it to get more paying countries into the COVAX Facility, thus eventually enabling more vaccines for people who couldn’t otherwise afford them, it might actually be the most ethical model. Either way, COVAX is now in business, and its multilateral, cooperative approach comes as a welcome counterpoint to the vaccine nationalism we’ve seen in other quarters. For countries that have signed agreements with the facility, the next step is to cough up the cash: Payments are due October 9. This money will hopefully accelerate the development and manufacturing of the vaccine we’re all awaiting. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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LinkedIn’s billionaire founder built a big-money machine to oust Trump. So why do some Democrats hate him?
Democrats need Reid Hoffman’s money. But it’s not that simple. | Doug Chayka for Vox Reid Hoffman symbolizes a bigger debate over whether Silicon Valley disruption has any place in our politics. Every few months, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman sends an invitation to some of the other billionaires who make up the Democratic Party’s big-money machine: He’d like to add you to his political network. Soon after, advisers to dozens of the party’s megadonors pile into rooms in Washington, DC, or Palo Alto, California — or, these days, on Zoom — for closed-door, Chatham House Rule sessions for some of the party’s most powerful fundraisers. They share notes, hear from people seeking big checks, such as Joe Biden’s campaign manager, and debate each other’s strategies to beat Donald Trump. Hoffman and the other principals are not always there. But his invitations to this “donor table” have given him extraordinary agenda-setting power and made him one of the most influential Democratic donors of the Trump era. These sessions, which started after Trump’s election and haven’t previously been reported on, are just the tip of the spear of Hoffman’s fundraising machine. To win this fall, Hoffman is personally spending as much as $100 million, which is as much as almost any other individual American. But Hoffman is also the hub of a new Silicon Valley big-money network: His aides privately boast that he has raised hundreds of millions more to oust Trump by guiding the donations of a class of newly politicized donors who are now bankrolling the left. Based on that, you’d think the Democratic Party would embrace him. Instead, Hoffman has emerged as a polarizing figure in the party — as popular in San Francisco as he is despised in parts of Washington — according to four dozen interviews with friends, Democratic donors, operatives, and officials who have worked or spoken with him and his team. The source of this tension: Hoffman’s team thought the Democratic Party was fundamentally broken and in need of well-financed disruption. So he and the donors in his orbit began pushing the envelope and funding risky and unorthodox projects, making mistakes and enemies along the way. Hoffman has grown to symbolize a bigger debate over whether this Silicon Valley disruptive style has any place in politics. And so the election this fall will offer one answer. If Biden wins, Hoffman is poised to emerge as one of the sages of Silicon Valley’s new political moment. But if Biden loses, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which Hoffman becomes the political poster child for Silicon Valley disruption gone awry, a billionaire who ticked off too many and accomplished too little. Hoffman declined interview requests for this story. And the people who spoke to Recode largely did so on condition of anonymity to offer their candid, complicated assessments of one of the party’s biggest donors. Because whether they love Hoffman or hate him, Democrats are scared to cross him — and lose access to his wallet. Reid Hoffman has made himself one of the biggest fundraisers in the Democratic Party The political awakening of Silicon Valley in the Trump era can be explained through the political awakening of Reid Hoffman. Hoffman is not just any founder-cum-investor. Although not a household name, he is one of Silicon Valley’s foremost “thought leaders” — he has coined startup terms and aphorisms, launched one of its most popular podcasts, and intentionally cultivated an image as one of tech’s resident ethicists. “With great power comes great responsibility,” he likes to say, harking back to Spider-Man. Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for LinkedIn Hoffman has intentionally cultivated an image as one of tech’s resident ethicists. What the LinkedIn founder was not was an elite Democratic donor. He had “generally avoided politics,” he said in 2017. Before Trump’s rise, Hoffman had made only $2 million in total disclosed donations, mostly to longtime friends and, with some irony, to a super PAC that sought to reduce the role of money in politics. Then again, few in Silicon Valley were considered megadonors before 2016. Its billionaire class, especially those who actively run its companies, had long been reluctant to spend their booming fortunes on partisan politics, part of a broader chasm between the tech industry and a political system that, at the time, didn’t bother them. But when Trump became the Republican nominee, Hoffman stuck his neck out further than most titans of industry — with a particular affinity for the gimmick. When Trump won, Hoffman muscled up. He hired a consultant to build an all-purpose political shop, “an innovation fund for the resistance.” And not just for him, but for other billionaires in Silicon Valley. Over the last four years, the tech industry, incensed by Trump’s hardline stances on immigration and climate change, among other issues, has politically mobilized. Its leaders have joined lawsuits against the administration, changed internal corporate practices to better handle the Trump regime, and financed the Democratic Party and its causes more aggressively than ever. And it is Hoffman who has become the port of call for a new class of political neophytes who are brimming with Silicon Valley riches and anti-Trump fervor but have no idea what to do with either. Hoffman has become the port of call for a new class of political neophytes who are brimming with Silicon Valley riches and anti-Trump fervor but have no idea what to do with either “Reid’s point of view is that there’s a lot of stuff that’s not going to get done unless he does it,” said John Lilly, a close friend of Hoffman’s. Take the fundraiser held this month for the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, one of the country’s key swing states. The state party inked Hoffman as its special guest on the invitation, and then Hoffman went to work. He began personally emailing and calling major Democratic donors, including software executive Sage Weil and venture capitalist Chris Sacca, and putting together a star-studded roster of Silicon Valley billionaires who gave as much as $25,000 a head. The final host list eventually included some of the Democratic Party’s most well-heeled givers, such as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Silicon Valley investing legend Ron Conway. It raised more than $500,000 for the state party. Hoffman can pull off something like that because of a core asset he has in spades, something that can’t be bought: credibility. Invitation obtained by Recode Getting Reid Hoffman’s name on a fundraiser invitation — in big, bold letters — can lead to a windfall. Invitation obtained by Recode “We hope you consider donating up to $17,800 — as I have,” Hoffman wrote his network when he passed along this invitation. In some calls with Silicon Valley leaders, Hoffman tells them that for all the giving they do to social causes, it won’t accomplish nearly as much unless they change who sits in the White House. At other times, Hoffman uses his own huge gifts as an example, stressing how deep he’s digging before flipping the script and asking them to similarly not be cheap. In an email last week, for instance, in which he invited friends to a fundraiser for Colorado’s Democratic Senate candidate John Hickenlooper, Hoffman wrote: “We hope you consider donating up to $17,800 — as I have.” Jeremy Liew, a venture capitalist famous for investing in Snapchat, served as a chair of the Wisconsin event. And he credits Hoffman, among others, for helping him navigate the world of politics. “I’m new to political giving and have taken advice from a few people more experienced than me on where my donations can have the most impact,” explained Liew. It is not, though, inside the party establishment but outside it — in the more opaque and lawless corners of this country’s convoluted campaign finance system — where Hoffman truly exerts his influence. Hoffman mainly influences other donors’ decisions, even if only implicitly, at the private get-togethers his team hosts, one of which was held this week. Hoffman aides set the agenda, offer funding recommendations, and sometimes invite people they have vetted, like Biden’s then-campaign manager Greg Schultz, to make their case. Hoffman’s team on occasion will challenge the other teams — which includes as many as 70 invited advisers to leading Silicon Valley givers like Schmidt, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs — to match Hoffman’s gifts to favored groups (many of which don’t disclose their donors). Getting in front of the confederation is a priority for Democrats who need big money. Advisers ask groups they’ve backed to write well-crafted memos for the data-driven group, knowing that their fleeting moment on the billionaires’ radars can lead to a windfall. Some groups have flattered and courted second-tier Democratic donors just because they are known to be in touch with Hoffman’s team. “He in a lot of ways has the stature, credibility, and connections to really play more of a David Koch role on the left,” said one Democrat in touch with Hoffman, drawing a comparison to the conservative megadonor. These sessions are just one way Hoffman’s opinions are shaping the Democratic Party. Hoffman’s team has helped usher in a renewed focus on what “return” these donors can expect on their “investment.” The team likes to ask grantees for a proposal with an estimated “cost per vote,” part of a new, cold-blooded diligence that many Democrats say is welcome and that they credit to Hoffman. Behind this all has been Team Hoffman’s belief that the Democratic Party is, or at least was, broken — his team has said publicly that the establishment has told them it was “not going to take” their advice on how to fix it. In a six-page memo to other donors earlier this month, Hoffman’s team recommended donations to 16 groups that they said addressed “the blind spots within the Democratic establishment.” So Hoffman has been trying to fix his political party from outside the party’s walls. He’s poured almost $20 million into Alloy, a data exchange program he started to repair the Democratic Party’s woeful infrastructure, without the party’s help. He’s also sent more than $10 million to Acronym, an advertising powerhouse focusing exclusively on digital ads — unlike the TV-focused Democratic establishment. “He in a lot of ways has the stature, credibility, and connections to really play more of a David Koch role on the left” And when Hoffman invested $3 million to help Democrats win seats in the Virginia legislature in 2017, he routed most of his money through an outside group rather than through the state Democratic Party. Hoffman’s team heralded the victories in Virginia as an early proof point of their model. And while they are supporting some state parties these days — Hoffman is, after all, now fundraising for Wisconsin’s — Hoffman’s chief political adviser, Dmitri Mehlhorn, drove home a different point at one post-election debriefing in 2017 that reflected an earlier point of view. Anyone spending any time with Democratic state parties, Mehlhorn told attendees, is a complete waste of time. Reid Hoffman has also made himself plenty of big enemies in the Democratic Party Democrats in Virginia remain incensed to this day, telling Recode that they feel Hoffman bullied them with his money so he could do things his way. And that speaks to the bind that Reid Hoffman poses to his Democratic Party. “In the tech world, it’s seen as positive,” one operative who has talked to Hoffman’s team said of his brand. “In the political world, it’s a bit toxic.” “In the tech world, it’s seen as positive,” one operative said of Hoffman’s brand. “In the political world, it’s a bit toxic.” The missteps reflect two central criticisms of Hoffman: that he has been so myopically focused on collecting the 270 electoral votes needed to defeat Trump that he is failing to invest in a long-term national infrastructure to support the progressive movement. And that to win those votes, critics feel, Hoffman is willing to play dirty. Hoffman’s defenders see this agitation as worth it — and if Democrats win, it could validate a more provocative form of political combat. “They are much more knife-fighters than I am,” said one adviser to a different major Democratic donor. You’re prone to get more than a few eye-rolls or laughs when you mention Hoffman’s name to party strategists. Some of the complaints seem rooted in jealousy and frustration from those he declined to back financially. Similarly, other criticism of Hoffman comes from the professional class that constitutes the Democratic establishment, which often competes with Hoffman’s startups and therefore has a vested business interest in their failure. And some of the animus toward Hoffman is driven by unpleasant interactions that some in politics say they have had with Mehlhorn, Hoffman’s heavily empowered aide. Some Democrats say Mehlhorn’s team has a tendency to insist that they are more knowledgeable about a field than are the operatives who work in it daily, or to “ghost” a prospective group after requesting copious materials and effort from it. One group estimated that it had met with Mehlhorn’s team as many as 20 times but had somehow not secured a donation. There can be no mistake about all the stress that Hoffman wars have inflicted on the Democratic Party — “years off all of our lives,” as one operative put it. A brief catalog: One of Hoffman’s first initiatives out of the gate was a quasi-challenger to the Democratic National Committee structure, called Win the Future. It effectively folded a year after it started in what an operative involved in it, Donnie Fowler, described as a “failure” and a “perfect example of how Silicon Valley makes mistakes.” A digital firm Hoffman backed with $15 million called MotivAI has been accused of spreading fake news. And Acronym — one of Hoffman’s single largest bets — has drawn substantial fire from within the party both for its brand of advocacy journalism and for its extensive ties to the startup that fantastically bungled the Iowa caucuses. Two other moves have rankled the party the most: His Alloy project has been widely panned by many Democratic data operatives who feel he has largely created a duplicative vendor to the Democratic Party’s own data program. The state parties once saw Hoffman as an existential threat — and “Reid” is still a four-letter word among many party officials, although tempers have cooled in the past year. And then there’s Hoffman’s decision to indirectly fund a disinformation campaign in Alabama during the 2018 election against Roy Moore, a decision Hoffman was eventually forced to apologize for. (In the aftermath, Hoffman promised that he’d publicly release a new disinformation policy for his political work — he still hasn’t done it.) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images The drama involving Roy Moore and Alabama continues to dog Hoffman — and seared his team. That searing news cycle burned Hoffman’s team, making them fearful of future controversies that could sully his name. Now, as Hoffman nears the end of his four-year mission, those two central criticisms — the obsession with 270 electoral votes and the ends-justify-the-means tactics — are rearing their heads again. Some progressive movement groups, especially outside presidential swing states, have been disappointed by their inability to receive large amounts of funding even if they feel the money would help the Democratic Party and communities of color over the long term, according to sources. Hoffman has indeed backed more than a dozen organizations led by people of color, such as the NAACP and Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight. But Hoffman aides have also told groups seeking funding that they are exclusively focused on efforts to oust Trump, given that they see him as a fascist threat. Compounding that frustration, for instance, has been Hoffman’s willingness to work with a whole slew of anti-Trump Republican groups, such as the Lincoln Project, that have no interest in supporting Democrats over the long term. When Hoffman announced that he’d be spending millions to produce meme-generated content alongside the Lincoln Project, a senior Democratic official reached out to Recode to say that money could have been better used to transform the fortunes of many Democratic groups. To many Democrats, those short-term decisions can be explained by a suspicion that Hoffman will lose interest in backing Democratic efforts at scale whenever Trump is out of the White House. Hoffman’s advisers have told other Democrats that they themselves do not plan to be working in politics full time after the 2020 election. “Win or lose, we’re not doing anything past 2020,” Hoffman’s team told one operative, who said they felt this comment was “incredibly shortsighted.” “Win or lose, we’re not doing anything past 2020,” Hoffman’s team told one operative Then there are the unconventional tactics: One aborted idea, for example, that Hoffman’s team had explored last year was an earned-media campaign against the Senate Banking Committee members that called on them to protest if the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates in response to pressure from the White House, Recode is told. The Federal Reserve is supposed to be independent of political pressure, but lower interest rates would also stimulate Trump’s economy, which could conceivably hurt Democrats, too. “A lot of people make money and then decide they should get involved in politics,” said Bradley Tusk, the strategist who worked on the effort with Hoffman’s team. “Not a lot of people use data, logic, creativity, and innovation in the way that Reid and Dmitri do.” As part of their attempt to encourage more progressive nonprofits to use Alloy, Hoffman’s team has even offered to essentially repay some groups if they used the data service. Hoffman’s team has also told people they are exploring some initiatives that sources feel could prove to be legally dicey, Recode is told: They have looked into what a donor could legally do to help with the collection and delivery of mail-in ballots, expected to be at record highs this year. They have also considered whether Hoffman’s team could directly pay activists who convince others to commit to vote in North Carolina — rather than funding a go-between, like an outside group, as donors traditionally do. And Hoffman’s team recently urged Democratic donors to vividly picture various nightmare situations — so they don’t get complacent with Biden’s polling lead. “In all of these cases, the most obvious solution is to win by more,” Mehlhorn wrote to his network last month in a memo obtained by Recode. “The bigger the margin, the harder it is to cheat.” A détente to the Hoffman wars? The hope in the Democratic Party is that its battles with Hoffman have ended. Democratic operatives across the board have detected a less hard-line tech billionaire after around 2018. Democrats feel his aides are less condescending and naive when it comes to the party establishment and are taking more of an interest in movement groups, even if they can’t quantify their “cost per vote.” In Washington, things have gotten better between the DNC and Hoffman in recent years thanks to intentional efforts from both sides to smooth things over. That relationship has recently borne fruit: Hoffman and Conway talked up Hawkfish, the data firm started by Hoffman friend Mike Bloomberg, to both Biden and the DNC, which eventually awarded a small contract to the Bloomberg firm. And when the DNC began planning for a virtual convention, the DNC sought out Hoffman’s team for his expertise in the world of digital organizing. And while Hoffman was not an early supporter of Biden during the primary, he has been welcomed into the nominee’s fold. Hoffman has served as the star attraction on Tech for Biden conference calls. He’s written blog posts on why all business leaders need to come out for the Democratic nominee, and even suggested that politics is a higher priority for him right now than his own startups. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Hoffman, the consummate networker, seeds his allies into a Biden administration as he did during the Obama years. Stephen Lam/Getty Images Barack Obama appears at Reid Hoffman’s company, LinkedIn, in 2011. But Hoffman is still outside Biden’s inner orbit — and that’s maybe in part because it’s not good politics for Biden to be publicly palling around with a Big Tech billionaire and Microsoft board member amid today’s techlash. “For the Biden folks, it’s nothing about Reid,” said one Silicon Valley fundraiser for Biden. “It’s much more: Don’t have the optic of being too close to Silicon Valley because, ‘Oh, by the way, we have to message about what we’re going to be doing about Silicon Valley, too.’” Behind the scenes, though, it is a far different story. Hoffman is needed. And that, in many ways, is the complicated story of Reid Hoffman and the Democratic Party in a nutshell. When Barack Obama began stepping out of the wilderness to host fundraisers for the Biden campaign, for instance, it was Hoffman who the DNC chose to host the invite-only confab, a sign to some that the establishment and Hoffman had finally buried the hatchet. “Next week, I’m hosting a high-commitment Zoom fundraiser with President Barack Obama,” Hoffman wrote to his network in mid-June, promising a “private, off-the-record conversation with President Obama, hosted by me.” He wasn’t speaking colloquially about a “high commitment.” The minimum ticket price for the Zoom turned heads, even among the uberrich of Silicon Valley: $250,000. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Kayleigh McEnany has made a mockery of her promise not to lie. Tuesday’s briefing was case in point.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during the press briefing on September 22. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images The White House press briefing is like a parody of dystopian governance. President Donald Trump often tells reporters that big plans of his, such as health care or immigration proposals, will be unveiled in “two weeks.” It’s a tell — when Trump says something is coming in two weeks, you know it’s almost certainly not coming at all. Trump’s favorite way of buying time has apparently rubbed off on Kayleigh McEnany, his fourth White House press secretary. Asked during Tuesday’s briefing if a health care plan that Trump has been saying is merely weeks away will finally be unveiled this week — “there are doubts that such a thing actually exists,” a reporter pointed out — McEnany said, without a shred of irony, that her boss “will be laying out some additional health care steps in the coming, I would say two weeks.” Q: Will the president finally unveil the health care plan he promised this week? Some people think it doesn't existMcENANY: It certainly does exist. The president in the next week or so will be laying out his vision for health care pic.twitter.com/8l1b7Qdbdx— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 22, 2020 That particular exchange illustrated how at this late date of Trump’s first term, the White House press briefings have become something akin to a parody of Trump’s administration. Instead of providing the public with useful information, McEnany puts on a masterclass of spin, obfuscation, and propaganda that would be amusing if it wasn’t such an affront to the idea that the federal government should work on behalf of the people. It’s hard to remember now, but the Obama administration’s press briefings were criticized, too. For instance, in April 2010, a Politico report described the Obama White House as “thin-skinned, controlling, eager to go over their heads and stingy with even basic information,” noting that while Obama promised to be more open with the press than other presidents, “reporters feel [his administration] doesn’t live up to that pledge.” But Obama-era briefings seem like beacons of transparency and cordiality compared to the dystopian scenes we’ve become accustomed to in the Trump era. Tuesday’s briefing was a good example of the state of the White House press briefing. What follows is a rundown of some of the lowlights. Moving the goalposts McEnany’s latest briefing came hours after the US hit the grim milestone of 200,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths. Trump himself spent the early days of the pandemic saying the virus would go away on its own, but McEnany insisted on Tuesday that the president deserves credit for keeping the death toll below 2 million. “We were looking at the prospect of 2 million people potentially perishing from the coronavirus in this country,” McEnany said in response to a question from Jim Acosta of CNN about what the White House’s message is to Americans who hold administration officials responsible for the mounting death toll. “The fact that we have come nowhere near that number is a testament to this president taking immediate action.” .@acosta: What do you say to Americans who blame this administration for 200,000 Covid deaths?McENANY: The fact that we have come nowhere near 2 million deaths is a testament to this president taking immediate action pic.twitter.com/Y5rHBLanG6— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 22, 2020 These comments represent a dramatic relocation of the goalposts from where Trump put them during the early days of the pandemic in February and March, when he cited 200,000 as the upper limit of possible coronavirus deaths in the country. “If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000, it’s a horrible number, maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100 [thousand] and 200,000, we altogether have done a very good job,” Trump said in late March. But now that deaths have surpassed 200,000, McEnany is suggesting that any death toll under the 2.2 million deaths an Imperial College study projected if the federal government did absolutely nothing to slow the spread is evidence of the great job Trump has done. Before Acosta could drill down, however, McEnany moved on. Defending the indefensible Tuesday’s briefing came hours after Trump said at a rally in Swanton, Ohio, that the coronavirus “affects virtually nobody.” In fact, Covid-19 is now the third-leading cause of death in the US, behind only heart disease and cancer. Trump’s comments were widely condemned and are indefensible on both human and public health levels. But that didn’t stop McEnany from trying. Asked by Acosta why Trump isn’t telling the public the truth about the pandemic, McEnany accused him of “taking the president out of context” because “you’re making an assertion that he’s not giving critical information when in fact he is.” But that wasn’t at all what Acosta said. McEnany went on to point out that a number of states have had no reported cases of children dying from Covid. But that’s not at all the same as saying Covid-19 “affects virtually nobody.” McEnany twists herself into a knot trying to defend Trump's lie that coronavirus "affects virtually nobody" pic.twitter.com/aBHdKRmJRE— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 22, 2020 Later, McEnany claimed that Trump “never downplayed critical health information” to the public about the pandemic. But just weeks ago, the Washington Post published a recording of a March conversation between Trump and journalist Bob Woodward in which Trump says of the coronavirus, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” But McEnany’s shamelessness isn’t just about denying that Trump said things at rallies or on tape in conversations with journalists. It’s about claiming Trump said things he never said. Asked at another point if Trump would like to publicly recognize or express remorse over the fact that 200,000 Americans have now died from Covid-19, McEnany claimed that “the president throughout this pandemic has done just that.” In fact, Trump has been more apt to say things like “it is what it is” about the mounting death toll than he has been to show empathy. As if to prove the absurdity of McEnany’s comments, hours after the briefing, Trump brusquely ignored a reporter who asked him why he hasn’t said anything publicly about the grim 200,000 death milestone. Q: Why haven't you said anything about the US hitting 200,000 coronavirus deaths?TRUMP: "Go ahead. Uhhhhh. Anybody else?" pic.twitter.com/gUv1kgG9OT— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 22, 2020 But when the real Trump won’t suffice, McEnany has no compunction about singing the praises of a fictional one. Trump’s White House briefings are pure propaganda McEnany began her tenure as press secretary by promising reporters she would never lie to them. “I will never lie to you. You have my word on that,” McEnany said early during her first briefing on May 1. But McEnany isn’t personally responsible for ruining the White House press briefing — doing so was quite literally one of the first acts of the Trump administration. Recall that on Trump’s very first day, then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer took the podium to angrily castigate reporters for accurately reporting that the crowd size for Trump’s inauguration was small compared to President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, insisting it was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” That set the tone for everything that’s followed, including McEnany’s tragicomic showing on Tuesday. Shortly after Tuesday’s briefing ended, McEnany — a Harvard Law graduate — posted a tweet accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of trying to “use impeachment” to “undo the Constitution.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi has threatened to use impeachment to undo the Constitution, particularly Article II, Section II. That is shameful but unsurprising from the Speaker! pic.twitter.com/qrrpBAX2uK— Kayleigh McEnany (@PressSec) September 22, 2020 Using impeachment to undo the Constitution isn’t a thing. It’s nonsense, and McEnany should know better. But spreading nonsense in the service of Trumpism is what being the White House press secretary is all about. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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RBG, the 2020 election, and the rolling crisis of American democracy
An anti-Trump protester in Los Angeles on September 21. | Mario Tama/Getty Images “This type of tension, in other countries, has led to civil war.” For much of this fall, Americans have fretted about a legitimacy crisis surrounding the 2020 election. But now, after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the hypocritical Republican rush to fill her seat in an election year, it’s clear that the crisis is here. Liberal democracy only functions when major parties accept the right of their opponents to govern. The purpose of the system is to take the antagonism that defines politics everywhere and channel it, creating rules and establishing norms that prevent one segment of the population from crushing others’ ability to participate in and shape the system. The breakdown of these rules and norms is at the heart of our current crisis. And the reason for this breakdown is that one of our two major parties has waged a decades-long campaign against them. Simply put, Republicans for decades have been delegitimizing the very idea of Democratic Party rule. Republicans shut down the government in the 1990s and impeached President Bill Clinton over far less than what Trump has done in office. Under President Obama, they fanned the flames of birtherism, held the global economy hostage to force spending cuts, prevented Obama’s Supreme Court nominee from even getting a hearing, and elevated obstructionism to the level of governing principle. At the state level, they have rewritten electoral rules to block Democrats from voting and seized power from Democratic governors after they have won elections. On Wednesday morning, the Atlantic reported that the Trump campaign was preparing to ask Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states to override the results of the actual vote and send their own, Trump-supportive electors to the Electoral College. Under Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Republican agenda has devolved into one of minority rule: an abuse of the counter-majoritarian parts of the American political system in order to lock Democrats out of power, and a willingness to stop at nothing to pursue these goals. For years, Democrats have refused to respond in kind, holding off on engaging in the same kind of procedural warfare that Republicans have made routine. But a repeated gap between winning the most votes and winning power, thanks to the Electoral College and the Senate, has pushed Democrats toward a more aggressive stance. They now believe, with good reason, that they represent the majority of the country — and that beating back Republican efforts to tilt the electoral playing field and seize control of the Court requires its own brand of procedural radicalism. Once-unthinkable measures like court-packing and ending the filibuster are now in play, with the latest Supreme Court vacancy seemingly like a true tipping point. “Nobody’s word means anything in this place anymore. All that matters is raw power,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted on Monday morning, reacting to news that Senate Republicans would push through a Supreme Court nominee six weeks from an election — a complete reversal of the GOP’s stated principle in 2016. “Got it. New rules.” Given this backdrop, many on the losing side in the battles over the Supreme Court and the election will almost certainly believe the other side’s victory is illegitimate. Depending on how things play out — and it’s important to be humble about our ability to predict the future — the November election has the potential to be a flashpoint that turns the escalating fight over control of America’s institutions into a full-fledged constitutional crisis. How Republicans corroded the legitimacy of American democracy To understand why we should be worried about what happens in the coming weeks and months, it’s worth dwelling a bit on the concept of political legitimacy in democracies. “In general,” the political philosopher Samuel Freeman writes, “the idea of legitimacy in law and politics relates to the proper enactment and application of laws and bestowal of authority of upon officials, all according to generally accepted and respected procedures.” The key words there are “proper” and “generally accepted.” In the context of an election, what that means is whether it’s perceived as free and fair by the country’s citizens. An election is legitimate in this sense when Americans generally accept that it was conducted properly. The same goes for the business of a president appointing, and the Senate confirming, a Supreme Court justice. But citizens’ perceptions also should, in theory, correspond to reality. If real policies are actually making the United States’ voting and Supreme Court appointment procedures less fair, then it’s understandable if that country’s citizens lose faith in elections and the judicial system — as many have in former democracies that have gone authoritarian, like Russia and Venezuela. And when elections and judicial appointments are actually the product of fair procedures, you’d expect citizens to see them as legitimate. In this respect, the fight surrounding American elections is somewhat strange. Trump and the GOP have used dubious allegations of voter fraud to convince Republicans that elections they lose are illegitimate in ways that they actually are not. These arguments have then served as justification for new policies that actually do make American elections less fair — think voter ID and mass purges from voter rolls that disproportionately hurt Democratic-leaning voters — thus leading Democrats to lose faith in electoral legitimacy. Put differently: A partisan strategy of falsely claiming elections are unfair has perversely served as justification for policies that make them less fair, damaging legitimacy among voters from both major parties. This process, which has escalated significantly in recent years, has laid the groundwork for an election that could end in crisis dwarfing the 2000 Bush v. Gore mess. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images Trump at a campaign rally. It should not be controversial, at this point, to assert that Republicans have been making false and misleading claims about the threat from voter fraud for years. Ben Ginsberg, a Republican attorney who has worked on the party’s election monitoring efforts since 1984, admitted as much in a striking Washington Post op-ed. “Republicans ... must deal with the basic truth that four decades of dedicated investigation have produced only isolated incidents of election fraud,” Ginsberg writes. “A study of results in three states where all voters are mailed actual ballots, a practice that has drawn the president’s outrage, found just 372 possible cases of illegal voting of 14.6 million cast in the 2016 and 2018 general elections — 0.0025 percent.” This Republican effort has had the effect of turning electoral legitimacy into a partisan issue, causing Republicans and Democrats to adopt fundamentally different views about what makes American elections fair. One study quantified this split using data from a survey of 10,000 voters (200 from each state) conducted in 2014. The authors found that in states that had strict voter ID laws, Republicans were considerably more likely to say they were “very confident” in the state’s vote-counting process than Democrats were. In states without those laws, things flipped — Democrats were the ones expressing higher confidence in the electoral system. Trump, as is so often the case, took this long-running problem and escalated it dramatically. It started during the 2016 campaign, when he warned of an election “rigged” by “millions” of illegal votes cast on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. This rhetoric mattered — one study found that Trump supporters were notably less likely to believe the election would be fair during the campaign — but was obviated by Trump’s victory and Clinton’s concession. As the 2020 incumbent, Trump’s rhetoric means a lot more — and, if anything, he’s turned up the heat. He said in August that “the only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.” He has falsely claimed that Democrats are sending out “80 million ballots to everybody and there’s tremendous cheating going to go on.” He openly claimed to be blocking emergency funding for the US Postal Service to prevent universal mail-in balloting. These are not one-off comments. The attacks on vote-by-mail and intimations that Biden could only win by cheating have become staples of the president’s rhetoric and right-wing media. Trump’s assault on the electoral system damages public faith in the elections on both sides of the aisle: Many Republicans actually believe what he’s saying, while many Democrats see his comments as evidence that he’s trying to use his powers of office to rig the game in his favor. After the 2016 election, about three-quarters of Americans thought the results were legitimate. By contrast, a mid-August 2020 NBC poll found that a majority of Americans had limited or no confidence in the fairness of the November elections, including 65 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats. In a mid-September poll from Yahoo/YouGov, only 22 percent of Americans expressed confidence that the elections would be “free and fair.” And so we head into Election Day with large chunks of the population poised to doubt the legitimacy of whoever wins. Republican hardball over the Supreme Court is eroding its legitimacy The Supreme Court vacancy left by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has now linked the November election, already dubiously legitimate, with the broader problem of Republican procedural radicalism. Republicans have convinced themselves, thanks to past events like the Democratic rejection of Reagan’s appointee Robert Bork and the sexual misconduct allegations that dominated the hearings held for Clarence Thomas in 1991 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, that Democrats don’t play fair when it comes to this most powerful of American institutions. This sense of grievance has provided cover for a scorched-earth approach to judicial appointments, where anything and everything is justified in the name of ensuring conservative control. Hence the Republican treatment of Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Court. McConnell claimed it would be inappropriate to replace Scalia during an election year, and that justice died in February 2016. Now Republicans are vowing to install a Ginsburg replacement with about 40 days until an election, a blatant violation of the standard set for Garland. It’s a transparent exercise in power politics that threatens the legitimacy of the Court. “If Trump and Republicans replace Ginsburg it will destroy the remaining public legitimacy of the Supreme Court. Full stop,” the conservative journalist Jonathan V. Last writes in The Bulwark. “The Republican party’s willingness to invent, bend, cherry-pick, or break rules and norms as needed in the pursuit of power would be undeniable.” Joshua Lott/Getty Images Obama speaking about Merrick Garland in April 2016. Such an appointment would cement the Democratic perception that a defeat in 2020 would not just be a normal political loss: It would threaten to lock them out of power for a long, long time. And, on this view, it would be because the Republicans bent or broke the norms and rules of American politics. Fears about GOP capture of the Court are compounded by United States’ profoundly dysfunctional electoral system. It seems overwhelmingly likely that Trump will lose the popular vote — meaning that if he were to win, that win would, for the second time in a row, be handed to him by the Electoral College. This is a weakly legitimate institution in the first place — a series of Gallup polls conducted between 1967 and 2011 all find majority support for its replacement with a national popular vote system — but Democrats have long been more supportive of its abolition than Republicans. This split has been intensified by the nature of the two parties’ current coalitions, which structurally advantages Republicans, both in the Electoral College and in the Senate. It’s generally understood that if Biden wins, Trump can be expected to cast doubt on the results and maybe even refuse to concede defeat. But a Trump win, given Democrats’ reasonably justified skepticism about the GOP’s commitment to playing fair and general sense that the system is rigged against them, could create a crisis of its own. That’s especially if Trump wins via a Supreme Court decision against counting mail-in ballots or on some other flimsy legal challenge — a victory won with the votes of some or all of justices he picked to replace Scalia, Ginsburg, and Anthony Kennedy. “If one side sees the other side as consistently cheating, the very premise of democracy is undermined,” writes Rick Hasen, an expert on election law at UC Irvine. “This year, the grounds for Democrats to fear an illegitimate election have only increased.” What an American legitimacy crisis could look like Legitimacy might seem like a fuzzy concept, maybe even an irrelevant one. Does it really matter whether people on the losing side think the election was fair? The answer from political scientists is an unequivocal yes. “This type of tension, in other countries, has led to civil war,” UC Berkeley’s Susan Hyde tells me. A 2009 paper by Kristine Höglund, a professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University, surveys places that have been hurt by election-related violence — a diverse group ranging from Sri Lanka to Kenya to the Palestinian territories. When elections are perceived as unfair by the losing side, they become more likely to turn to violence as a result. Fighting becomes even more likely when elections have higher, group-based stakes — when they feel less like a competition between citizens and more like existential struggles between opposed ethnic or religious groups. Other causes of violence include “biased police,” widespread “access to arms,” and “political usage of electoral administration.” The point of these comparisons, according to Hyde and others, is not that the United States is likely to experience a kind of new civil war (though it’s telling that she needed to raise that as a possibility). For a variety of reasons, including the professionalization of the military and the country’s long history of peaceful power transitions, that seems exceptionally unlikely. Rather, the point is that American democracy is taking on features that are genuinely abnormal in wealthy, consolidated democracies — forms of polarization, social distrust, and politicization of ostensibly neutral government institutions like the Supreme Court that spell doom for public faith in electoral outcomes. When that faith is lost, political factions that have lost elections look to other forms of political activity for satisfaction. Tom Pepinsky, a political scientist at Cornell, tells me that “we are in uncharted territory” — that no advanced democracy has ever had an election with this kind and degree of problems. The closest analogy he could think of, modern Thailand, was in no way reassuring: a political crisis surrounding the April 2006 election resulted in a military coup. “There are lots and lots of differences” between the US and Thailand, Pepinsky notes. “But the important similarity is this idea that no side believes the election could be fairly held that they don’t win.” There are a number of ways that 2020’s loser could challenge the election’s outcome. FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley sketches out one particularly troubling scenario, wherein Trump has a narrow lead in the decisive state of Pennsylvania on election night that ends up flipping after all the absentee ballots are counted. The state’s Democratic governor confirms a Biden victory and sends his electors to the Electoral College, while the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, following Trump rage-tweets, appoints a different slate. According to Barton Gellman’s reporting in the Atlantic, the Trump campaign and its allies in Pennsylvania are actively considering this kind of push. Direct appointment of electors “is one of the options. It is one of the available legal options set forth in the Constitution,” Lawrence Tabas, the Pennsylvania GOP’s chair, told Gellman. The process of whose slate wins out in this kind of fight is, it turns out, shockingly indeterminate: This could easily end with Biden and Trump both claiming to be the real president on Inauguration Day. Massive protests would likely ensue; violence involving the police or armed militias, like the ones recently seen patrolling the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, are well in the realm of possibility in this or any other contested election scenario. If Trump chooses to abuse his power as president, things could get even darker. Longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, during a September appearance on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s talk show, called on Trump to send federal marshals to seize allegedly corrupt absentee ballots, declare “martial law,” and arrest a list of political enemies that includes “the Clintons” and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. There just isn’t a good parallel for what we are currently living through in recent American history or that of any other wealthy democracy; comparisons with developing and post-conflict states, like Thailand or the United States of 1876, are closer but still not quite exact given the profound differences between these places and modern America. This is terra incognita. The fairness of our elections has come under fundamental question, as has the Court that’s supposed to provide legal redress in exactly this kind of dispute. There is no road map for what may lie ahead, and getting out of it will require a genuine reckoning with what got us here — that one of our major parties has spent decades convincing itself that its rival wielding power is an unacceptable catastrophe. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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Farms have bred chickens so large that they’re in constant pain
Chickens on a farm in China. | Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images Why humanely raising animals is more complicated than just a good living environment. Being a chicken on a factory farm is pretty awful. Some of the reasons are obvious. Farms pack in chickens tightly to maximize profits, so a chicken in captivity has very little space and is surrounded by a sea of other chickens. There isn’t dirt to peck in or root into; instead, they walk through their own waste, and the entire warehouse smells very strongly of ammonia from all the chicken poop. There’s no sky or fresh air — even farms that claim birds have “access to the outdoors” often pack tens of thousands of birds into a warehouse that has a tiny yard that can fit a dozen of them. In principle, we could fix all of those things, and movements to create more humane conditions on factory farms are working on it. We could require less restrictive cages, more space, a reasonable number of cage mates, dietary variety, and genuine access to the outdoors. But the awfulness of life as a chicken in a factory farm goes much deeper than that. For decades, we’ve been breeding chickens to be maximally economically efficient, which mostly means that we raise them quickly, and to be much, much meatier. And it turns out this causes agonizing chronic pain, joint and movement problems, and other issues — even if you try to give the birds good living conditions. That’s the finding of a recent two-year study from the University of Guelph that looked at more than 7,500 broiler chickens from 16 genetic strains — that is, varieties of chicken just like there are breeds of dog. The study found that the fast-growing chicken varieties common on factory farms have tons of health problems separate from the ones caused by their appalling conditions,meaning that, even in an ideal environment, they experience a lot of suffering. Since these breeds specifically designed to fill our platesgrow so quickly, it’s hard for them to move, and they spend much of their time immobile. They develop painful lesions and foot injuries. The birds that grow fastest had signs of heart and lung problems. On the whole, pretty much everything that can go physically wrong in a chicken’s body does when the chicken has been bred to reach full size as quickly as biologically possible. “Strains with faster growth rates and higher breast yields had lower activity levels, poorer indicators of mobility, poorer foot and hock health, higher biochemical markers of muscle damage, higher rates of muscle myopathies, and potentially inadequate organ development,” the paper finds, concluding, “Fast growth rate coupled with high breast yield is associated with poor welfare outcomes.” What does this mean? Well, the most important takeaway is that we can’t just hope to prevent animal cruelty on factory farms by requiring good conditions for animals (though we should do that!). We mayalso need newrules about which varieties of animals are bred and raised for food in the first place. Chickens from strains that have been aggressively selected to grow incredibly fast will likely be in constant pain; by contrast, it may beeasier to provide a humane environment for slower-growing birds. It should be noted that there are some trade-offs here too — if we switch to raising birds that are a little smaller, even more of them will have short, difficult lives and be killed for food to produce the same amount of meat. It’s a knotty issue, but solving it starts with taking chicken suffering seriously. How do you measure a chicken’s suffering? Chickens don’t express pain like humans do, and, like many animals, they’re motivated to hide distress so they don’t attract predators. Animal behavioral scientists look at lots of different cues. The primary ones are behavioral: If a chicken is in enough pain, it should change how willing it is to walk around or get food. The Guelph researchers measured activity levels — how often chickens stood up or moved around, compared to how often they stayed motionless. They took food out of the cage briefly and put the food back on the other side of a beam, then measured how willing the chickens were to cross the beam to get food. Better Chicken Project summary report They also looked at chickens’ footpads for sores and lesions, which other animal research has confirmed are painful and debilitating for animals, and they looked at signs of injuries in the chickens’ bodies once they’d been killed. “Growth rate,” the researchers concluded, “reduced activity levels, mobility and interactions with environmental enrichments.” In other studies, researchers have looked at whether chickens feel empathy. They seem to, exhibiting distress, for instance, when something unpleasant but not dangerous happens to their babies. Animal behavioral science often requires a lot of creativity even to answer questions that are straightforward to answer with humans, like, “Does that hurt?” With that creativity, though, it’s easy to find evidence that for animals, like for us, pain can restrict us from play and socialization, leave us stuck sitting in one place for hours, make even routine tasks unpleasant enough we put them off or avoid them, and leave its markers on the body. Can factory farming be made humane? Lots of meat is sold under labels assuring us that our conscience can rest easy — “humane,” “free-range,” “organic,” “cage-free,” “natural.” Polls show that most Americans care about the way their meat is made, and many people say they try to always purchase humanely raised meat. Unfortunately, these labels are often a mirage. For example, it’s not economically efficient to raise broiler chickens (chickens that we kill and eat for meat, as opposed to egg-laying ones) in single-animal cages rather than super-crowded larger spaces. As a result, they’re just crowded into enormous warehouses by the hundreds of thousands. Technically that’s “cage-free,”but it’s not a free life. Other labels are even less substantive than that — “natural” means that food should be “minimally processed,” but means nothing about whether the animals lived anything resembling natural lives. For that reason, many animal activists are cynical about efforts to make factory farms better by providing less awful conditions for animals or by changing which animals are raised on farms in favor of breeds that suffer less. They worry that these changes will assuage consumer consciences without actually ending the widespread systematic animal cruelty on factory farms. That’s probably true to some extent. But as David Coman-Hidy, the president of the Humane League, told my colleague Ezra Klein in May, little changes — while they may not change our larger culture, and while they may not be sufficient to make animal lives on factory farms less cruel, short, and torturous — still matter. Coman-Hidy works on changing how we kill chickens in slaughterhouses. Right now, they are shackled upside down on a conveyer belt, a process that can dislocate their legs and cause their organs to put suffocating pressure on their lungs. They’re dragged through electrified water, which is supposed to stun them before they’re boiled but often doesn’t. The process is horrific and traumatizing. So the Humane League is working to convince slaughterhouses to gas them instead. Is it worth taking steps that make things a little better, when they’re still so far from humane? “The thought experiment that helped me is if I could die, or have a member of my family die, by being euthanized by gas, or have what I just described happen to them, what would I give to get the gas?” Coman-Hidy said. “And the answer is everything.” The same is true with slower-growing breeds of bird. We shouldn’t kid ourselves — they’ll still be packed into warehouses full of noise, ammonia, and their own waste. They’ll still develop painful stress injuries, some of them will die before they’ve reached full size, and they’ll all be killed at a young age. But one thing — one important thing — will be a little bit better: They won’t grow up faster than their joints can hold them up, leaving them crippled by their own bodies. And for billions of birds, that matters a lot, even if it’s not enough. In the long run, I hope that we can meet the world’s demand for chicken without killing any birds at all, through plant-based or cell-grown meat options. But a problem as serious as the torture of tens of billions of animals a year ought to be tackled from as many angles as possible. Figuring out which animals are possible to raise humanely — and which experience intense pain even in good environments — is an important step toward making life a little better for birds on factory farms. Hand in hand with efforts to ban cruel treatment of animals on those farms, it might domuch reduce the humane cost of our appetite for meat. Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good. 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Pigs are as smart as dogs. Why do we eat one and love the other?
Inti St Clair/Tetra Images via Getty Images There’s a paradox on our plates. Imagine a dog. She spends her entire life in an iron crate so small that she cannot turn around. H