Against the Nation

Right now, the most serious attempt to overthrow our democracy in the history of our of country is underway. Those who are pushing to make Donald Trump President, no matter the outcome of the election, are engaged in a treachery against their nation. You cannot, at the same time, love America and hate democracy.

Senator Chris Murphy

This week’s featured post is “The Increasingly Desperate Attack on Democracy“.

This week, everybody was talking about the Republican attempt to steal the election for Trump

As I explained in this morning’s Teaser, I resent that Trump is continuing to make me pay attention to him. The world and the country face real issues that have nothing to do with him, his ego, and his prospects of going to jail. I would like to start focusing on them. But his attempt to intimidate Georgia’s secretary of state into throwing the election, and his supporters’ effort to block (or at least de-legitimize) Biden’s victory, can’t go unnoticed.

This attempt to establish an American autocracy should be a black mark that all these people wear for the rest of their lives. I agree with Jennifer Rubin:

These spurious challenges to an election should remind us that the GOP has become an authoritarian, unprincipled party whose only purpose is to retain power by whatever means possible. It should permanently disqualify these Republicans from holding office.

I discuss the details in the featured post.

and about vaccine distribution

Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, writes bluntly in the Washington Post: “Vaccination is going slowly because nobody is in charge.”

Let’s start with a quick recap: As recently as early October, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said we’d have 100 million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020. One month later, that was reduced to 40 million doses. As recently as Dec. 21, Vice President Pence, the head of the White House coronavirus task force, said that we were on track to vaccinate 20 million Americans by Dec. 31. Unfortunately, 20 million doses haven’t even gotten to the states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that we have vaccinated about 2.6 million people. Assuming the reporting lags by a few days, we might be at 3 or 4 million total. …

How did we get from 100 million promised doses to just a few million people vaccinated? It is a lesson in misunderstanding American federalism and a failure of national leadership. The federal government and Operation Warp Speed saw their role as getting vaccines to the states, without considering what supports states would need to get vaccines to the people.

State public health departments are already worn down by pandemic, and the money appropriated in the CARES Act last spring is long gone. The Covid relief package just passed by Congress has new funding for states to spend on vaccination programs, but the new money, plus a plan for what to do with it “should have happened in October and November”.

In the face of this unforced error, Trump is doing what he always does: blame somebody else. The slow delivery of the vaccine is the states’ fault, he claims. (In a remarkable coincidence, all 50 of them are failing in exactly the same way.) In a tweet, Trump makes this systemic failure sound like his personal success.

The vaccines are being delivered to the states by the Federal Government far faster than they can be administered!

One of the most frustrating thoughts I have about the whole botched pandemic response, beginning to end, is that this is precisely the kind of thing Hillary Clinton would have been good at: a difficult organizational problem with a lot of details, requiring an understanding of how the various parts of government work and how they fit together.

The pandemic seems to have leveled off at a horrifying plateau, as we wait to see the size of the post-Christmas surge. We’re currently averaging about 220K new cases per day and 2600 daily deaths, and have been for more than two weeks. The total number of American deaths has passed 350K.

and the Georgia senate runoffs

I haven’t posted much about this because I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen.

The election is tomorrow. After November, I’m not trusting small margins in polls, but 538’s polling average has both Democrats narrowly ahead, with neither polling over 50%. For what it’s worth, polls in Georgia did pretty well in November. 538 had Biden winning by .9%; he actually won by .2%.

Two Senate seats will be decided. If Democrats win both of them, they will control a 50-50 Senate by virtue of Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Otherwise, Mitch McConnell continues to be majority leader.

Even if both Democrats win, it’s a mistake to expect much out of the Senate. The filibuster is still in place, and to get rid of it Schumer would need all 50 Democratic votes — something that’s unlikely to happen. The main advantage that would come from controlling the Senate would be deciding what comes to a vote. For the last two years, Pelosi’s House majority has been passing legislation about voting rights, Covid relief, DC statehood, and all sorts of other worthy causes. The Senate should have to vote on these things. If it does, some watered-down version might even pass.

Also, a Republican Senate will spend most of its time launching spurious investigations into whatever Biden conspiracy theory they can come up with.

But the idea that a 50-Democrat Senate will enable some kind of “socialist agenda” is just Republican propaganda.

and you also might be interested in …

Nancy Pelosi gets another term as speaker.

Congress overrode Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act. Efforts to up the $600 payments in last week’s Covid relief bill to $2000 went nowhere in the Senate.

Patrick Cage knew about Q-Anon before most of the rest of us did, because he makes regular bets on PredictIt, the political stock market. Back in 2018 he started noticing anomalies in the prediction markets: People were willing to bet money on prospective events that nothing in the news pointed to: say, that Hillary Clinton or Jim Comey or Barack Obama would be indicted by a certain date. After he won a few bets against these positions, he started studying the comments sections for explanations of what the bettors were thinking. And that’s how he discovered Q.

The followers of Q, it turns out, don’t just trade theories on social media. Some of them think they have real inside knowledge that they can use to make money. Cage has become a student of Q-Anon theories so that he can bet against them. He claims he hasn’t lost an anti-Q bet yet.

If you have Q-Anon friends, you might want to show them this article. One of the best ways to dissuade them, I suspect, would be to get them testing their theories on prediction markets. You can explain away things you said on the internet. But you can’t explain away a steady loss of money. If Q is so smart, why can’t the people who listen to him get rich?

I’ve been resisting the recent trend of paying for subscriptions to individual writers — sorry, Matt Yglesias — but this week I made an exception for David Roberts’ new blog Volts.

Roberts has been writing about environmental issues and their philosophical underpinnings for years. I started reading his stuff when he wrote for Grist, then followed him to Vox. I’ve quoted posts like “The question of what Donald Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer“, and his discussion of “tribal epistemology“. His 2012 exchange with Wen Stephenson about how the mainstream media covers climate change is just as relevant now as it was then.

An example of the kind of thinking I have appreciated from Roberts is his recent Volts post “Why I Am a Progressive“, which includes a critique of philosophy’s famous Trolley Problem (which you may have seen on “The Good Place”). The thought experiment is misguided, he claims, because it implies that the important thing in ethics is to find the right abstract rules, as if the height of ethical achievement is to become the perfect decision-making automaton.

As the Trolley Problem is structured, you, the moral agent, have an utter paucity of knowledge about the situation. You don’t know why you’re there, any of the people involved, any history, any detail. All you know is, one life or five lives. The problem is designed to make the agent (the decider) invisible, to isolate the decision itself away from embedded, embodied experience.  …

All we have are the perceptual and analytic tools available to us, so we should focus on improving them. If you want trolley-style decisions made better in the real world, in real societies, you’re much better off focusing on agents than on any set of final principles. … [W]hat we’d want operating in a real-world case of the Trolley Problem is not the perfect set of principles, but the perfect moral agent — the best possible decision-maker.

By contrast, the world we have now is determined by “harried people making thoughtless decisions based on crude heuristics and mental models”. The surest path to a more moral world, then, is to improve that situation.

And so he winds around to the question he is supposed to be answering: why he’s progressive. People make better decisions, he says, when they have the slack to take a step back and think things through, and they make worse decisions when they’re hungry or afraid or worried about losing their place in the world. They also make better decisions when they have access to high-quality information. So, of course, you educate people about how to think clearly, and you make it easy for them to find good information. And then you create a society where as few people as possible live in fear or under stress.

I finally got around to reading Dan Kaufman’s book The Fall of Wisconsin, which came out in 2018. It tells the story of how Scott Walker and an extreme form of conservatism took over the state where Bob La Follette invented the progressive movement a century ago. The short version is:

  • Walker’s conservatives were backed by limitless amounts of money, which they used not only to overwhelm Democrats during election campaigns, but also to create a permanent infrastructure of organizing groups like Americans for Prosperity. Liberals organized issue by issue, election by election, and candidate by candidate, and so were always a step behind.
  • They had a long-term strategic plan and carried it out, systematically crippling centers of Democratic strength like the unions.
  • They were ruthless about changing the rules in their favor, instituting a voter-ID law that disenfranchised tens of thousands, gerrymandering legislative districts so extremely that repeated Democratic voting majorities can’t dislodge the Republican leadership, and transferring power from the governor to the legislature after Walker was voted out.

But it’s not just a story of diabolical Republican brilliance. The dysfunction of Democrats and progressives in general is a second theme. By taking a short-term non-strategic perspective, Walker’s opposition allowed itself to be picked apart piece by piece. Walker succeeded in turning private-sector unions against public-sector unions, and non-unionized workers against unionized workers. Liberal whites in the small towns often failed to stand up for blacks in Milwaukee or Native Americans protecting the environment near their reservations, and those groups returned the favor. The thought “They’ll be coming for me next” never seemed to register.

The Democratic Party in general showed a similar lack of solidarity, and worried more about losing the news cycle nationally than about supporting grassroot movements that channeled local energy. So in 2011 when Walker was taking collective-bargaining rights away from teachers and other public-sector unions, and tens of thousands of grassroot protesters occupied the state capitol building, President Obama was looking ahead to his 2012 reelection campaign and stayed away.

The lesson I learn from this book is that to be successful, the Democratic Party has to be strong locally, and has to stand for themes that manifest in issues people can see in their lives. Republicans have become the party of fantasy, focused on bizarre conspiracy theories (like Q-Anon), just-so stories (like rich people creating jobs with their tax cuts), meaningless pejorative labels (“socialists!”) and fears disconnected from reality (like transgender acceptance allowing pedophiles to lurk in girls’ bathrooms). Democrats can’t win on that turf.

Democrats have to be the party of real people talking about what’s going on in their lives: my groundwater is polluted, I can’t pay my medical bills or my student debt, you can’t live on minimum wage in this city, and so on. And if those stories sound foreign at first, because in some way we’re different from the people telling them, trusted national figures have to encourage us to stretch our empathy, and explain how we may need others to be there for us someday. National figures need to invest their political capital in local issues, rather than pull back because those stories are not immediately popular.

and let’s close with something restful

In Utah, a wildlife bridge allows for transit over Interstate 80. Back in November, the state Division of Wildlife Resources posted a video of the “traffic”, which includes several deer, as well as coyotes, bears, and a bobcat who snares a mouse.

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  • Eric L  On January 4, 2021 at 6:06 pm

    Since you brought up QAnon, thought I’d share an article I recently read where game designer Reed Berkowitz analyzes how the conspiracy is designed to engage followers:

    View at

    Might be another one to send QAnon followers, to explain what exactly “Q” is doing?

    • Anonymous  On January 4, 2021 at 9:50 pm

      I think it’s like a Stephen King novel: good plot, keeps you engaged, not reality

  • Lou Doench  On January 6, 2021 at 8:33 am

    I know how you feel about paying for individual writers. Sometimes it makes perfect sense. My favorite baseball writer Joe Sheehan started a subscription newsletter a while ago and it became especially valuable when the recession hit in 2008 and a lot of the outlets he normally wrote for went under or cut costs to the bone. Between stuff like that and the drip drip of Patreon subscriptions to webcomic creators and podcasters, and my sub to a couple of very ethical (redacted) sites, I’m accumulated a monthly outlay to individual creators that would be irresponsible if it weren’t for my class privilege.

    There is a speed limit of sorts to this kind of economy though. Blue Gal, of the Professional Left Podcast (I buy them a fancy coffee each week,) has said that while they are grateful for donations and subscribers, we can’t base a healthy economy around everyone “taking in each other’s laundry.”

    And as much as I enjoy Matthew’s work, he’s way down on my list of people who I would trust to eschew editorial oversight. He’s not going to go Full Glenn Fucking Greenwald on us, but I fear being let off any Leah not held by his fanbase will encourage some of his worst instincts.

  • Anonymous  On January 9, 2021 at 9:52 pm

    “I resent that Trump is continuing to make me pay attention to him.”

    And he’s done it again. Ossoff and Warnock both won their races for the Georgia Senate and we’re talking about Trump egging on an assault on the U.S. Congress.

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