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Biden pledged 'science, not politics.' It's been more complicated. – POLITICO




President Joe Biden promised that his administration would lead with “science and truth,” a continuation of a campaign message that he’d prioritize and elevate government scientists, in a sharp break from the Trump administration’s pandemic response.

But nearly a month into Biden’s presidency, the push to reopen schools is laying bare the thorny balancing act between science and politics. After promising to reopen schools by his 100th day in office, Biden’s already walked back the pledge to just elementary and middle schools, and then, as White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week, “the majority of schools — so more than 50 percent.”

The shifts reflect the challenges the White House faces in restoring a sense of normalcy. Blanket vows to “follow the science” create expectations of a fixed path toward defeating the coronavirus, without factoring in the inherent politics.

“You can take science and reach a number of different policy conclusions and policy directions that are different, but are still true to the science,” said Rich Besser, a former acting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The CDC on Friday released guidance for reopening schools, outlining strategies to safely bring students and teachers back while mitigating the spread of the virus. The CDC was clear, though, that it was not mandating schools reopen. That, for the moment, circumvented the bitter fight that’s pitted teachers seeking strong safeguards as a precondition for returning to schools against some parents eager to release their kids from virtual learning.

“The science has been evolving,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a Biden ally. “It’s not a political calculation, it’s based on trying to make the science work.”

Biden administration officials insist that the White House is grounding all of its policy decisions firmly in the best available evidence. They say the president receives a daily state of pandemic update from his Covid response team in his daily briefing book. And indeed, the Biden administration has taken care to give health experts like Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky leading roles in managing the response, and solicited constant input from its health agencies and outside public health groups.

This has especially been the case in areas like school reopenings and travel restrictions, where the administration has had to navigate a maze of interests, from unions insisting on zero risk strategies including vaccinations to financially battered airlines leery about a domestic Covid testing requirement.

“There are always tricky politics when you’re dealing with hard issues,” Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesperson, said in a statement. “But this moment transcends politics — Americans’ lives are at stake. We are focused on instilling trust from the American people in our pandemic response — and that means following the science and letting the experts be our guide. It’s not going to make everyone 100 percent happy all of that time, and that’s okay because the goal at the end of the day is doing what’s best for public health.”

The debate over the science has complicated the White House’s school reopening push in particular, which has centered on CDC assurances that teachers don’t need to be vaccinated to return to the classroom — even as the agency warns the broader public that a series of emerging Covid variants could mean the virus is more contagious than ever before.

“The fact that we’re advising double masking and minimizing having your neighbors over for Super Bowl parties — all things that are sensible — in some ways conflict with guidance to teachers, especially high-risk teachers,” said Vin Gupta, a professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation who served as an early adviser to the Biden team. “This is a matter of, how do you ensure public policy is consistent enough that it doesn’t erode public trust.”

Compounding the on-the-ground anxiety is that the Biden administration has no clear power to compel states to open schools responsibly no matter what recommendations it issues. Already, many states are openly defying CDC guidelines by loosening a range of other public health restrictions governing everyday life.

“People are smart, and they’re recognizing that,” Gupta said. “They’re not going to feel reassured just because you told them so, or because the data suggests it.”

Biden transition officials spent weeks crafting plans for safely reopening schools based on public health best practices, including proposing a massive new Covid testing regime and hundreds of billions of dollars in funding to help retrofit classrooms and overhaul ventilation systems.

The vision, outlined in Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief proposal, included modifying classrooms to allow for more distance between students and purchasing personal protective equipment, and even went as far as to suggest boosting transportation capacity to reduce the number of people riding the bus together to and from school.

But despite its efforts, the team underestimated how hard it would be to sell the plan to the teachers unions that had largely backed Biden’s presidential campaign — especially without the promise of a vaccine, an adviser involved in the planning said.

“We didn’t think teachers unions would be so reluctant,” the adviser said, adding that Psaki’s statement this week that reopening meant returning kids to class one day a week was far from the team’s original vision.

The mixed signals have opened the administration up to criticism from multiple sides and put the White House on the defensive for one of the first times during the carefully choreographed rollout of its Covid response.

“The science could not be more straightforward: schools must safely reopen their doors to students now,” Rep. Steve Scalise, the top Republican on the House’s coronavirus subcommittee said Friday, echoing a view that has gained increasing traction throughout the GOP over the past week. “President Biden pledged to reopen schools in 100 days and follow the science, but instead he has broken this promise and followed the radical unions’ lead.”

Meanwhile, a contingent of Biden allies has questioned why the White House has been so adamant that states reopen schools — without being equally as vocal about getting teachers to the front of vaccination lines. Though Walensky on Friday said educators should be prioritized, she downplayed the shots as just “an additional layer of protection.”

Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert who served on Biden’s Covid-19 advisory board, predicted that Biden would soon face an even more critical crossroads in his quest to reopen schools, warning that the emergence of fast-spreading variants could drive the nation’s worst pandemic surge yet.

“I think this discussion’s going to be all for naught soon,” he said, pointing to the variant that’s already forced European countries to close their schools. “When B117 takes over in six weeks or so, I think our whole country is going to be approaching its darkest days with this virus.”

Osterholm has long been a proponent of resuming in-class learning. But the U.S. is not vaccinating people at nearly the pace it needs to head off the variant’s spread, he argued, likely forcing the administration to abandon its most ambitious reopening goals.

“The administration is going to have to understand that, and start to temper their message accordingly,” Osterholm said.

Asked whether the White House recognizes the seriousness of the threat to its political goals, he demurred: “There are some that clearly do. And I think they’re trying,” he said.

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How Giving Up Ableist Insults Can Help Heal Our Politics – Forbes



The long struggle to unlearn ableism may have an unexpected side benefit. It could help us make today’s politics and public discourse a little less toxic.

American politics were never as friendly as we like to think they once were. But they have felt particularly nasty for quite a few years now – that’s not just our imaginations. Most of us have a vaguely-defined but strong and understandable desire to “go back” to a kinder, less tense and corrosive dialog with our neighbors and fellow citizens – in person, on social media, and especially in politics.

How do we achieve civility when real issues divide us? Our conflicts are more than just rudeness and pointless rivalry, although we have more than enough of those, too. Real grievances need airing, and real injustices cry out for accountability. Does civility mean compromising on our own or other people’s humanity and worth? Should human rights be open to debate? Is bipartisan harmony really better, if we simply agree on who will remain oppressed and precisely how much? When the stakes of political argument are real and life-altering, harmony and bipartisanship for their own sakes seem a little less important.

Still, we aren’t wrong to crave a bit more mutual respect and a more chill atmosphere in politics. The trick is figuring out how to get there without simplistic difference-splitting or unilateral surrender. How do we make our politics more polite and respectful, while still standing firm for our beliefs and working on real solutions to our difficult problems?

One way we might start rebuilding respect without backing down on substance is to give up one specific and popular rhetorical style. We might stop calling our political opponents “stupid” and “crazy.” It seems like a small thing. But we might find that kicking the habit of insulting people based on intelligence and sanity is a remarkably low-cost way to lower the temperature of politics, and turn us away from petty name-calling so we can focus on the conflicts that really matter.

It’s not just about banning two words, “stupid” and “crazy.” It’s about weaning ourselves off the entire approach of criticizing opposing political views by calling those who hold them unintelligent or irrational. It’s taking care to stop calling people “idiots,” “morons,” and “dummies” – or calling them “nuts,” “certifiable,” and “insane.”

It’s what most of us seem to do when we are so frustrated by “the other side” that we can’t even describe exactly what’s wrong. We slap a label of “stupidity” or “insanity” on it, and rely on deeply ingrained, fundamentally ableist contempt and fear to do our arguing for us. We know it’s not the most noble form of debate. But it’s so common and, frankly, often so emotionally satisfying that giving up the practice won’t be easy. We will need good reasons to give up this easy and seductive brand of name-calling.

First of all, it really is ableist. “Stupid,” “crazy,” and their equivalents may or may not insult a particular disabled person in any given situation. But these terms always support the core ableist assumption that intellectual impairments and mental illnesses are inherently bad and invalidating. We use intelligence and rationality this way in political arguments because of the widespread belief, or maybe just a habit of thinking, that intellectually disabled and mentally ill people don’t have ideas worth listening to – that they are worthless and dismissible. If those ableist assumptions really weren’t there, the words wouldn’t have the same power and effect, and we wouldn’t be so in love with using them against our political foes.

But these insults and labels aren’t just offensive to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or those with mental illness. And they aren’t just harmful in the way they uphold ableist assumptions about people with those disabilities. Labels and insults based on intelligence and mental illness also add more pointless rancor and incivility to our politics and public discourse. These kinds of insults further foul our already hateful political discourse this without any compensating benefit to anyone, including those of us who use them.

They make political conflicts personal, distracting us from real issues and ideas of consequence.

They aren’t in the least persuasive or helpful to better understanding, because they short circuit real discussion of substantive issues.

Instead of helping us explore the outlines and contours of our disagreements, they signal superiority, contempt, and dismissal.

Using mental illness diagnoses for political and ideological purposes also has a dark history, including in Soviet Russia where political dissidents were often branded as “mentally ill” and detained, based partly on the idea that only an “insane” person could disagree with approved doctrines.

Meanwhile, calling actual cruel, bigoted, violent people – and both extreme anarchists and authoritarians too –“insane” or “stupid” lets them off lightly. It also distracts us from more serious and specific problems like racism and other forms of bigotry, and from political violence which brings literal harm and suffering, and threatens the core of democracy itself. It’s much easier to call racists and terrorists “idiots” and “lunatics” than to contend with the deeper things that actually drive their thinking and actions.

Over several decades, intelligence and mental illness insults, both explicit and implied, have also fueled two of the key narratives of our current political divide:

First there is the perceived conflict and unbridgeable cultural gulf between “elite” liberals who think conservatives are ignorant, unintelligent, or mentally ill, and “heartland” Americans who feel disparaged and looked down upon by “costal, liberal elites.” Like all stereotypes, these are often exaggerated. But judging by rhetoric alone, at least some of the Left’s contempt for the Right really does seem based on perceptions of intelligence and sanity.

It’s a theme heard loudly and explicitly in pretty much every speech at a Trump rally, and further illustrated by numerous stories on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. And it’s a narrative heavily reinforced from both Left and Right through whole sectors of popular culture, from music to comic books, and from movies and TV shows to comedy acts and beer commercials.

Then there is a kind of mirror version of this conflict, in which a certain strain of conservative or libertarian believes themselves to be the smart ones, grounded in a more logical, objective, and honest form of intelligence and rationality that overly emotional, hopelessly indoctrinated liberals lack. They don’t believe that they just happen to be smarter and more rational than liberals. A particular type of intelligence and rationality is at the heart of their own perceived political identity, as is the supposed “stupidity” and “irrationality” of their opponents.

This is most notable in the niche popularity of “rational” or “skeptical” communities on social media and especially YouTube, much of which in the last several years has moved to the Right politically and is driven by contempt for “social justice warriors” of the Left. Again, their core argument is that they are smart and rational, while left-wing “Social Justice Warriors” are “dumb” and “illogical.”

In both cases, intelligence and rationality are championed as the ultimate validations, while stupidity and insanity are the ultimate put-downs. Roughly speaking, “both sides” really do seem to do it, though it’s rarely an even match. The point is that there seems to be a broad consensus across the political spectrum that it’s both a fact and a strong argument to call your political opponents “stupid” or “nuts.”

This specific brand of rhetoric is just one of many factors fueling incivility. Giving it up won’t solve everything. But it is a factor, and moving away from it may be one of the easiest ways to foster a better political atmosphere, because it doesn’t involve any real concessions from anyone.

By at least trying to move to less ableist rhetoric, we may find that we are contributing to civility. If we stop insisting that we are smarter, mentally healthier, or fundamentally better people than our opponents, it won’t undo our substantive conflicts. But it could remove part of what makes our natural divisions wider: contempt for the other, and the feeling that the other holds us in contempt.

Unlike other changes and trade offs, this one should be relatively easy, or at least simple. We really can stop calling our political opponents “stupid” or “crazy,” or any words for judging intelligence and sanity. Instead, we can refocus on criticizing ideas, actions, and arguments, with evidence and compelling counter-arguments.

It won’t end ableism, and it won’t create total harmony in politics. But it could reduce the sum total tonnage of both ableism and political rancor in everyday life. It seems worth a try on both counts.

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'It's a Minefield': Biden's Pick For Health Secretary Faces Abortion Politics – NPR



Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, contended with critics of abortion rights on the first day of his confirmation hearings Tuesday.

Sarah Silbiger/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Sarah Silbiger/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As President Joe Biden works to overhaul U.S. health care policy, few challenges will loom larger for his health secretary than restoring access to family planning while parrying legal challenges to abortion proliferating across the country.

Physicians, clinics and women’s health advocates are looking to Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services, to help swiftly unwind Trump-era funding cuts and rules that have decimated the nation’s network of reproductive health providers over the past four years.

But Becerra’s in the middle of confirmation hearings this week. And though he fought the Trump administration’s family planning restrictions as California’s attorney general, he will, if confirmed by the Senate, face a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees, plus other increasingly conservative federal courts that have backed efforts to restrict reproductive health services.

The leader of Biden’s Health and Human Services team will also have to contend with an energized anti-abortion movement — a movement eager to leverage political power in red state legislatures to finally achieve its decades-long quest to ban abortion outright.

Any Biden administration efforts to preserve the right to an abortion and other family planning services could set up new legal battles between the federal government and states.

“It’s a minefield,” says Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has written extensively about the history of the nation’s abortion debate.

“Expectations on both sides are extremely high,” she says. “And the Supreme Court may force the issue to the top of the agenda if it does something aggressive to restrict abortion.”

The outlines of the brewing showdown came further into focus Tuesday as Becerra faced opposition from a number of Republicans on the Senate health committee on the first of two days of confirmation hearings.

“For many of us, your record has been … very extreme,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told Becerra at the hearing, accusing him of being “against pro-life.” More than three dozen groups opposed to abortion rights have urged the Senate to reject Becerra, who has been a longtime advocate for abortion rights and federal support for contraceptives.

By contrast, Becerra has drawn strong support from abortion rights groups, which have applauded his efforts challenging Trump restrictions on family planning services. “He will be a great partner,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Becerra, whose wife, Dr. Carolina Reyes, is an obstetrician, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, after which his nomination is expected to move to the floor of the Senate next week for consideration by the whole body.

Successive presidential administrations since the 1980s have restricted or expanded federal support for family planning, depending on which party controlled the White House.

But tensions between the two sides intensified under President Donald Trump, making the task before Biden and Becerra that much more delicate.

Trump, who relied heavily on political backing from religious conservatives, moved more aggressively than his GOP predecessors to curtail access to abortion and clamp down on federal funding for clinics that provide reproductive care.

Organizations such as Planned Parenthood that long received federal money through the half-century-old Title X program were forced out of it when the Trump administration effectively barred recipients of federal aid from providing abortions or counseling women about the procedure.

That move, in turn, led to widespread staffing cutbacks at clinics across the country and huge drops in the number of people able to get family planning services, according to health care providers.

“We’re seeing so many fewer clients,” says Brenda Thomas, chief executive of Arizona Family Health Partnership, which coordinates the state’s Title X program. Thomas said the number of patients in Arizona’s program dropped 24% in 2019 after the Trump administration issued the new rules; it then declined an additional 40% in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic further hampered services.

In Missouri, a provider operating three family planning clinics left the program, leading to a 14% decrease in patients getting services through Title X, according to the Missouri Family Health Council.

And in California, the Title X restrictions led to a 40% reduction in patients in 2019, says Lisa Matsubara, general counsel at Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.

Like many other family planning advocates, Matsubara says Biden needs to do more than just reverse the cuts. “We don’t want to just, like, go back to what it was before the Trump administration,” she says. “We’re really looking and hoping that the administration really takes the necessary steps to expand access.”

Biden has pledged to rewrite the family planning regulations so clinics providing reproductive health services can return to the program.

Within days of taking office, Biden issued an executive order to reverse other family planning restrictions imposed by the last administration, including rescinding what’s come to be called the global gag rule that prevented international aid groups that receive U.S. funding from counseling pregnant patients about abortion.

Rolling back some federal policies, like the restrictions on international aid, are relatively simple. Biden and Becerra likely also could quickly reverse Trump-era restrictions on mifepristone, a pill used to induce abortion early in a pregnancy.

But rewriting rules on funding for family planning or reissuing other complex regulations could be considerably more fraught, experts say.

“Both sides have really learned how to maximize use of courts,” says Alina Salganicoff, who directs women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy nonprofit. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

“If anyone understands the legal challenges, it’s Becerra,” Salganicoff says. “But these are thorny issues. There are questions about how the Biden administration can move forward and how fast. And there’s no question they are going to be sued.”

After taking office, Biden said his administration would review the Title X restrictions, which are also under review by the Supreme Court.

As California attorney general, Becerra sued to stop the Trump administration rules. The case was rejected by lower federal courts, though a separate lawsuit in Maryland challenging the rules was successful, setting up the case for the Supreme Court.

Last month, the court issued its first abortion-related decision since Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg, upholding a Trump-era rule that blocked mail delivery of mifepristone.

Many legal experts see more substantial court fights on the horizon as conservative-leaning states pass increasingly restrictive abortion laws.

Just last week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, signed a bill barring abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected with ultrasound, or about five or six weeks after a pregnancy begins.

The South Carolina law was temporarily blocked by a federal judge after Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit.

The Supreme Court has never upheld a law as restrictive as South Carolina’s. But the high court is the most conservative it has been in decades, raising the prospect that justices may reconsider the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which recognized the right to an abortion.

That could force Biden — and potentially Becerra — to step much more directly into efforts in Congress to safeguard abortion rights, says Ziegler, the Florida law professor.

“There will be huge pressure on the Biden administration to do big, bold things,” Ziegler says.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Is Political Discrimination In The Workplace Legal? – Forbes



A picture has been making the rounds on social media, showing a sheet of paper, presumably posted at a place of business, which states the following:

“Job Applicants Please Note:

We do not hire LIBERALS. (emphasis original)

This is not because we disagree with their political views.

It is because working here requires superior reasoning, logic and reading comprehension skills, and in our experience, Liberals are deficient in those areas.

We have found that they make decisions based on their emotions, not logic. This would be very detrimental to our business.

We regret any inconvenience this may cause.”

It looks like this first made its appearance on social media a few years ago, but seems to have resurfaced recently.

It’s unclear if this was really posted by an employer or if it’s just a political meme placed online to cause some trouble. Either way, it presents two interesting questions about employment discrimination law.

We’re on the heels of one of the most partisan eras of politics in our country’s history. So when it comes to the workplace, can an employer go so far as refusing to hire someone just because they’re a “liberal?”

Workplace Discrimination Based on Political Views

To a large extent, private employers may discriminate against their employees and job applicants based on political beliefs and some political activities. This is because political behaviors and beliefs are not protected classes under the major employment anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Also, First Amendment protections do not apply in the private employment setting.

And because most employees are employed at-will, their employers can fire them for any reason at any time, without notice. Two major exceptions to at-will firings are when they are illegal or against public policy.

Public employees have a few more rights in regards to political activity protections, as the First Amendment comes into play. However, these rights are not absolute and government employers can still fire or discipline employees for their political behavior in some situations.

Many states and local jurisdictions have enacted anti-discrimination laws that provide varying degrees of political protections in the employment setting. California’s laws are among the most robust, prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants based on their political activities or affiliations. 

In contrast, a few other states have laws that don’t directly offer political protections. North Dakota prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on their lawful, off-duty activities that occur away from the employer’s premises.

One thing to note is that while most states have some sort of law that provides employees or job applicants some degree of protection against politics-based discrimination, they are usually very specific in their application. For instance, they may not apply to political beliefs or views, but instead, a limited range of political activities like making a political campaign contribution or running for office.

Yet a select few jurisdictions may apply their politics-based anti-discrimination laws more broadly. Examples include Seattle, Washington, where discrimination based on “political ideology” is prohibited and New Mexico, where discrimination based on political beliefs or views is unlawful.

Therefore, in most states, an employer can legally refuse to hire someone because they are a “liberal.” But one of the risks for employers is that discriminating against someone because they are a liberal could be a pretext for illegal discrimination.

An employer who wishes to only hire men may believe that liberals are more likely to include women. So instead of discriminating against women, they just say they have a hiring policy against liberals. If this is what’s really happening, then a “no liberals need apply” hiring policy would likely be an example of an unlawful pretext.

The Bottom Line

While it may be true that employers have a fair degree of flexibility to hire or fire their employees based on political disagreements, there exist some contextual protections for employees against this behavior depending on where they live; moreover, companies who exercise this right too readily may find themselves in legal hot water for other types of discrimination in turn.

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