With our politics increasingly polarized and democracy in retreat, worried Americans are responding in all manner of ways. Some, such as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have mounted a fight against voter suppression. Others, such as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, are lobbying social networks to change their products and policies to promote transparency and accuracy in political advertising.
And then there’s the actor Chris Evans, best known for playing Captain America in 10 Marvel movies. According to an earnest new cover story that came out today in Wired, Evans is doing …….. this:
He would build an online platform organized into tidy sections—immigration, health care, education, the economy—each with a series of questions of the kind most Americans can’t succinctly answer themselves. What, exactly, is a tariff? What’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid? Evans would invite politicians to answer the questions in minute-long videos. He’d conduct the interviews himself, but always from behind the camera. The site would be a place to hear both sides of an issue, to get the TL;DR on WTF was happening in American politics.
The origin story of A Starting Point, as the site will be called, is as follows. One day during a break from filming Avengers: Infinity War, Evans was watching the news. He heard an unfamiliar acronym — NAFTA, or maybe DACA. He Googled the term, and was met with headlines that took multiple, competing points of view. He clicked on the Wikipedia entry, but found that it was very long. “It’s this never-ending thing,” Evans told Arielle Pardes, “and you’re just like, who is going to read 12 pages on something?”
I don’t know — someone who cares?
In any case, Evans was crushed by the realization that to answer his question, he might have to read for several minutes. And so he decided to solve his problem in the next-most-logical way: by flying to Washington every six weeks, recording more than 1,000 videos of members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates, and posting them on a website that he built with an actor friend and “the founder and CEO of a medical technology company called Masimo.”
And when all the videos are posted, what then?
If Evans got it right, he believed, this wouldn’t be some small-fry website. He’d be helping “create informed, responsible, and empathetic citizens.” He would “reduce partisanship and promote respectful discourse.” At the very least, he would “get more people involved” in politics.
Of course, all that assumes that people who won’t read a Wikipedia entry will watch videos instead. I would always rather read a few sentences about an unfamiliar subject than listen to a congressman filibuster about it until the camera shuts off, but maybe you’re a big fan of C-SPAN.
Still, there are a few obvious problems with Evans’ brainchild. One, it presumes that citizens can best be informed by hearing directly from politicians. Certainly politicians have a privileged viewpoint when it comes to some subjects — primarily their own opinions. But on most subjects, the median member of Congress can only repeat what they were told in briefings by staffers and lobbyists. To suggest that they have a monopoly on the truth is naive.
Two, A Starting Point assumes that you can reduce partisanship by exposing people to multiple points of view. In fact, the opposite is true. Human beings are fact-resistant, never more so than when a fact contradicts a closely held belief. Earlier studies found a so-called “backfire effect” in which seeing a fact contrary to your opinion would make you believe your erroneous opinion even more. Later studies have struggled to replicate that finding, but at the very least it seems fair to say that changing people’s views is extremely hard to do, especially with mere facts.
Finally, A Starting Point begins from the premise that voters are all basically the same, and differ primarily in how much information they have about candidates and issues. In reality, politics is tribal. As Ezra Klein explains in a book coming out later this month, Americans are increasingly polarized around their identities, with partisan affiliation representing a large and growing portion of that identity. Thus the inclination to dismiss what members of the opposing political party say out of hand, based on what they represent.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Evans here: there are worse ways to spend your time than trying to increase participation in the political process. (For example, Evans’ Avengers co-star Chris Hemsworth has a subscription-based fitness app.) But if you’re worried about democracy, you’re probably better off banding together with existing civil society groups, activists, and political scientists than you are going it alone. Defeating Thanos required that the Avengers work together with heroes even stronger than themselves. Captain America knew that. It’s a shame Evans doesn’t.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
The warning allowed Microsoft to develop a patch for the problem and gave the government an early start on fixing the vulnerability. In years past, the National Security Agency has collected all manner of computer vulnerabilities to gain access to digital networks to gather intelligence and generate hacking tools to use against American adversaries.
But that policy was heavily criticized in recent years when the agency lost control of some of those tools, which fell into the hands of cybercriminals and other malicious actors, including North Korean and Russian hackers.
By taking credit for spotting a critical vulnerability and leading the call to update computer systems, the National Security Agency appeared to adopt a shift in strategy and took on an unusually public role for one of the most secretive arms of the American government. The move shows the degree to which the agency was bruised by accusations that it caused hundreds of millions of dollars in preventable damage by allowing vulnerabilities to circulate.
[Dorsey] notes that the service has moved on since, but the company doesn’t consider an edit button worth it. There are good reasons for editing tweets, he says, like fixing typos and broken links, but also malicious applications, like editing content to mislead people.
“So, these are all the considerations,” says Dorsey. “But we’ll probably never do it.”
The WHO said that most new cases of covid-19, a novel type of coronavirus, are now being reported outside China. The number of cases surged in South Korea; Italy recorded hundreds of infections, more than in any country outside Asia; and there were worries that Iran was underreporting the spread of the epidemic within its borders. Iran’s deputy health minister tested positive for the disease. See article.
China postponed the annual sessions of its rubber-stamp parliament because of concerns about the outbreak of covid-19. The meetings had been due to start in Beijing in March and involve thousands of delegates. Despite a fall in the daily numbers of new cases in China, Xi Jinping, the president, said the epidemic was “still grim and complex”.
A Chinese court sentenced Gui Minhai, the co-owner of a bookshop in Hong Kong that sold gossipy works about China’s leaders, to ten years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. Mr Gui is a Swedish citizen who is also claimed by China as its national. His detention has fuelled widespread alarm in Hong Kong about the erosion of political freedoms.
Mahathir Mohamad resigned as prime minister of Malaysia, after his own party, Bersatu, decided to leave the ruling coalition. He remains in office as a caretaker. Anwar Ibrahim, his long-time rival and leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the biggest party in the coalition, has put himself forward as a replacement. It is unclear whether either man has the support of most MPs. See article.
The Afghan army, the insurgents of the Taliban and NATO forces all pledged to observe a week-long “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan’s civil war. If it holds until February 28th, America and the Taliban will sign a peace deal in Qatar on February 29th. See article.
Thailand’s constitutional court disbanded Future Forward, the country’s third-biggest political party, and banned its leaders from politics. It is the eighth party the court has dissolved since 2006. See article.
Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, summoned a crowd of hundreds of thousands to cheer for Donald Trump. But the American president’s visit was marred by communal riots in Delhi, which claimed 33 lives. See article.
Taur Matan Ruak, the prime minister of East Timor, resigned after parliament voted down his budget. The president must now decide whether to name another prime minister or call elections.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, announced a wide-ranging review of the country’s place in the world post-Brexit that seeks “innovative ways” to push overseas interests. Outside experts will be used to challenge “traditional Whitehall assumptions”, a nod to Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s powerful special adviser, who has clashed with civil servants. Mr Cummings has criticised waste in the Ministry of Defence.
Sajid Javid, who resigned as Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer after a skirmish with Mr Cummings, attacked a move to align the Treasury more closely with thinking in the prime minister’s office. Mr Javid said that this was not in the national interest.
The race to be the next leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats, and probable chancellor after Angela Merkel quits next year, now has only three runners. Armin Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, got a big boost when Jens Spahn, the up-and-coming federal health minister, said he would not contest the race, but would support him instead.
Residents of the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chios fought with riot police in an attempt to stop an expansion of detention camps to house more migrants arriving mostly from the Middle East via Turkey.
Degrees of brutality
Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for three decades, died. The former despot was toppled during the Arab spring of 2011, amid protests over poverty and his repressive rule. He faced trial for corruption and murder, but mostly avoided punishment. Many Egyptians expressed nostalgia for Mr Mubarak, who ruled with a lighter touch than the current dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. See article.
Hardliners won parliamentary elections in Iran, scooping three-quarters of the seats. The regime claimed a mandate for its confrontational stance towards America. But thousands of moderates and reformers were barred from running and, as a result, turnout was the lowest in a parliamentary election since the Islamic revolution in 1979. See article.
Faure Gnassingbé, the president of Togo, won another term in an election marred by irregularities. Mr Gnassingbé has been in office since 2005, when he took over from his father, who had first seized power in 1967.
The police in a state
A strike by police in Ceará, in north-eastern Brazil, led to a sharp rise in the number of murders in the state. At least 170 people have died since police stopped work on February 19th in a row over pay. A senator, Cid Gomes, was shot as he drove a digger towards striking police. The government has sent in the army.
Protests by police in Haiti against poor working conditions led to battles between them and the army. At least one soldier died. The country’s Carnival celebration was cancelled.
Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal barred Evo Morales, a former president, from running for a seat in the Senate in elections due in May. Mr Morales left office in November after Bolivians protested against his re-election.
Her day in court
Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of two of the charges brought against him in New York: of rape (by having sex with a woman against her will) and of forcing oral sex on a woman. He was acquitted of three charges, including the most serious. Scores of other women have accused him of sexual misconduct. See article.
The latest Democratic debate produced the usual fireworks. It was the last to be held before the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, when Democrats in 14 states will vote on who they want to be their presidential candidate. Bernie Sanders remains the firm favourite following his decisive win in Nevada. See article.
Meanwhile, it was reported that Russia is meddling in the primaries to get Mr Sanders elected, and is also stepping up plans to interfere in the general election to re-elect Donald Trump. So it is a win-win situation for the Kremlin if either Mr Sanders or Mr Trump is victorious in November. See article.
This article appeared in the The world this week section of the print edition under the headline “Politics this week”
What Bernie Sanders’s 2020 rivals learned from 2016 Hillary Clinton. Plus: Venezuela is the eerie endgame of modern politics.
It’s Thursday, February 27. In today’s newsletter: What Bernie Sanders’s 2020 rivals learned from Hillary Clinton. Plus: Venezuela is the eerie endgame of modern politics, Anne Applebaum writes.
« TODAY IN POLITICS »
(John Locher / AP)
Bernie’s rivals have found an opening to attack him from the left.
To his detractors, Bernie Sanders can at best sound like a broken record. His core 2020 message is largely consistent with the progressive message he’s been hammering at for decades. But on issues around gun violence, Sanders hasn’t always been stalwartly progressive. He opposed certain gun restrictions in the ‘90s, and though his views have “evolved” (to use the preferred parlance of wishy washy DC politicos), his record on guns may be among his biggest vulnerabilities.
The campaign saw the gun issue as potent against Sanders, a former official told me, because it resonated most with three constituencies crucial to Democrats: voters of color, suburban women, and young people. Yet because Clinton never truly feared losing the nomination, she stopped short of maximizing the impact of her attack and didn’t run negative television ads on his gun record. “We raised the gun issue in order to put some chum in the water,” the second former campaign official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. The strategy “was much more about giving something for the elites and the press to talk about than it was about informing actual primary voters.”
All the while, gun violence in America has grimly, devastatingly plodded along. Just yesterday, five people were shot and killed at the Molson Coors brewery in Milwaukee. America in 2019 saw more mass shootings than any other year on record. Two of the three deadliest occurred in the span of a single day.
Gun violence has become personal for many people in a way that it wasn’t before—a shift the party can try to capitalize on, my colleague Elaine Godfrey writes.
Guns have “to be on par with health care and with quality-of-life issues,” Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during last year’s midterms, told me in an interview. And the growing intrusion of mass gun violence into daily life could be what upgrades the issue to a top concern for voters—a shift that Democrats could try to capitalize on in the same way they seized on voters’ worries about the fate of Obamacare and their own creeping health-care costs last year. The 2020 election, Sena said, “could be the first time you actually see” gun violence take center stage as the party’s go-to election message.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s recent culling of the National Security Council may be cloaked in the language of making a sprawling bureaucracy more efficient. But really the move functions as a purge of disloyal staffers to Trump, this former Pentagon speechwriter argues.
« EVENING READ »
(Emin Ozmen / Magnum Photos)
What Happened in Venezuela
“Venezuela is not an idea,” Anne Applebaum writes. “It is a real place, full of real people.” And the current state of the country represents the eerie endgame of modern politics:
Trump is not the only world leader to cite Venezuela for self-serving ends. Regardless of what actually happens there, Venezuela—especially when it was run by Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez—has long been a symbolic cause for the Marxist left as well … Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the British Labour Party, was photographed with Chávez and has described his regime in Venezuela as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neoliberal economics.”
Chávez’s rhetoric also helped inspire the Spanish Marxist Pablo Iglesias to create Podemos, Spain’s far-left party. Iglesias has long been suspected of taking Venezuelan money, though he denies it. Even now, the idea of Venezuela inspires defensiveness and anger wherever dedicated Marxists still gather, whether they are Code Pink activists vowing to “protect” the Venezuelan embassy in Washington from the Venezuelan opposition or French Marxists who refuse to call Maduro a dictator.
The next president of the United States will probably be someone who’s over the age of 70. Donald Trump is 73; Joe Biden is 77. Bernie Sanders, who is currently leading the Democratic Party’s primary field, is 78. But young people are transforming American politics, driving substantive ideological trends in both major parties via the politicians they support. Sanders, for example, owes much of his leading status to the young. In fact, young Democratic voters prefer him to Pete Buttigieg, a more moderate millennial, by a wide margin.
They’re also entering political office themselves. In doing so, they begin an inevitable process: Soon enough, their generation will be the one controlling Congress and the White House. What will that America look like? Will it take up the political revolution promised by Sanders, will it tilt to the right, or will it default to the patterns established by the political class that millennials will eventually replace? Without the aid of a crystal ball, nobody can answer these questions with any certainty. But the future is beginning to take shape, and in her new book, The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, journalist Charlotte Alter provides us an invaluable early glimpse into the events and movements that will influence politics for decades to come.
Alter, a national correspondent for Time magazine, recounts the trajectories of several prominent members of America’s newest class of politicians. Alter’s subjects are diverse — they range from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist; to Dan Crenshaw, the Texas Republican whose inflammatory attacks on migrants and fellow member of Congress Ilhan Omar made him infamous. But Alter identifies some connective tissue among these up-and-coming leaders — namely a view of politics that can be less rigidly hierarchical and places a greater emphasis on plurality compared to their boomer predecessors. Alter spoke to New York about her findings and what they may tell us about the future of both major parties. The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For is out now from Viking.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.
You talked to young politicians from across the political spectrum: leftists, more traditional Democratic liberals, some Republicans, too. Are there any common characteristics that distinguish this younger class of politicians from their older colleagues?
A couple of things. Millennials obviously are much better with technology and are much more fluent in the language of social media than their boomer peers are. They definitely care way more about climate change in particular. And that’s true across the political spectrum. Republicans, too. The young Republicans I talked to told me that climate change is happening and the government has to do something about it.
They do have totally different ideas about what that should be. They’re not onboard with the Green New Deal. They don’t embrace socialism the way young leftist millennials do. They have a real disagreement about what that climate action should be. But one major point of agreement across the aisle, people of both parties is like this, is that climate change is a real threat.
Another thing that I noticed is that morality politics have changed a lot. So again, across the spectrum, young Republicans have given up on the battle against marriage equality while older Republicans who maybe have a more 1990s, Christian right sort of framework are still beating that drum. Marijuana legalization was another place where young Republicans just were not fighting a battle that older Republicans are fighting. A lot of young Republicans that I talk to think that marijuana legalization will be good for business and good for health. I think there’s a little bit more of a live-and-let-live-type attitude amongst some of these younger Republicans. One big exception to that is abortion, where both sides are still really entrenched. And I didn’t see a lot of generational movement there.
We’re seeing an intergenerational fight within the Democratic Party that isn’t just about age, but about substantive differences in ideology and tactics. Do you think that a similar dynamic exists in the Republican Party right now?
One thing that’s happening in the Republican Party right now is that they’re losing young people. There was a Pew statistic that should be very scary for anybody who cares about the future of the Republican Party, which is that only half of young Republicans stayed loyal to the GOP over the course of 2015 to 2017. During Trump’s rise, basically. So half of those people defected from the GOP, and then came back, which means they have maybe a soft allegiance. They’re still with the GOP, but were upset enough that they left and came back in. And then half of those people permanently defected. Overall, a quarter of young Republicans have permanently defected from the GOP.
Some of the polls that look at the attitudes of young Republicans are in some ways kind of skewed, I think, because they’re looking at the attitudes of people who still call themselves Republicans. They’re not looking at the attitudes of people who, if you’d asked them in 2013 if they were Republican, they would have said yes. A lot of those people now identify as independents. So young Republicans in particular have been especially turned off by Trump. Not only turned off by him, but he’s made their lives more complex. They find themselves constantly having to defend him, constantly having to tiptoe around him or justify him. I talked to some young Republican members of Congress who, even though they support the president, they don’t ever mention him in their speeches. You can infer that they don’t want there to be a quote out there of them saying how great Donald Trump is so it can be used in an attack ad against them ten years from now.
You mentioned that on morality issues, like same-sex marriage, there are some generational differences within the Republican Party. But race and immigration are issues that have been at the fore of the Trump presidency. Have you noticed similar generational differences there, or is it a bit more complicated?
So I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I do think that young Republicans generally do support immigration more than their older Republicans do. There are obviously some big exceptions, like Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, who has emerged as being particularly tough on immigration. But people like Carlos Curbelo, a former congressman from Florida, and Elise Stefanik of New York were among the people who pushed back against some of the things that Trump did on immigration initially.
I think what is important to think about when thinking about young Republicans in this context is that I think a lot of them — and I want to make sure I phrase this the correct way — have an understanding of racial justice that is closer to their Democratic peers than to their boomer Republican peers, who think of racial justice like, “Oh, segregation’s over, everything’s fine.” We see that in young Republicans’ support for criminal justice reform and things like that. But there is a culture war in how those values are expressed. And I think that a lot of young Republicans in particular are turned off by PC culture and sort of the sanctimony of some of their left-wing peers. So they’re kind of pushed away from that side of the movement, and they feel attacked.
How is social media changing the way this new generation of politicians are running for office right now? It’s changed it entirely. Instagram is to AOC what radio was to FDR and television was to JFK. It is a completely new and essential way of communicating with the public. It’s not as if any of these people, like, started using social media the second they started running for office. It’s not a blazer that they put on that they hadn’t been wearing before, you know. So a lot of these people are used to communicating in a mass way. They’re used to being in front of a camera. They’re used to asking people to do things on the internet: “Please click this. Please check this out. Here’s what I think about this thing.” In some ways, social media has made it so that almost every millennial is a public figure in some way or another. Everybody has a side to them that is public-facing, and running for office just means that you lean into that public side way more than you would have if you were a private citizen. I think in previous generations, people had to just develop that public side out of nowhere because you didn’t have a built-in mechanism to have that public facing side of you. So many of the major social movements, particularly on the left, like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, also started on social media and kind of mimic social media in their structures. They are networked. They’re not hierarchical. There is no one person who is in charge and telling everybody what to do. There is sort of an organic way that information and ideas and attitudes kind of flow within these movements. These movements were created by thousands of voices speaking at once. And that’s what I really tried to get at in this book. That’s why it’s called The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. In some ways, the thesis of this book is that millennial politics is rooted in a sense of plurality, that there isn’t going to be any one person like Pete Buttigieg or AOC where if they become president, it will be the era of the millennial politician. That’s not the point. The point is that this is a generation that is much more networked, has their politics much more rooted in mass movements. This is a book about politics in the plural, trying to move away from the great man idea that there is one person and the decisions they make are the most important decisions in the world.
Do you think social media is making it easier for people to run for office?
Yes, it’s definitely making it easier. I think it’s making politics seem accessible to more people. Somebody like AOC uses her social media to essentially communicate the message that I’m a normal person just like you, and I ran for office and won. That’s the point of democracy, that an ordinary person can, with the help of a lot of other people, run for office and win and represent their community in the United States government. That’s the way our system is supposed to work. A lot of the anger at the democratic system among millennials reflects the extent to which it hasn’t worked that way. It is so expensive to run for office, so it does feel inaccessible. And the people who are in power don’t feel like they’re really of the community. Social media can help that democratic impulse of allowing people to feel like they’re actually connected to the people who represent them.
The youth vote is going to be critical to a Democratic victory in 2020. Based on your reporting, what do you think the party has to do in order to turn out young voters in November?
As you and I both know, Bernie Sanders is the candidate of choice for young people. Though I saw a really interesting poll recently that showed that among young Democrats, Bernie was at 53 percent and Warren was at 17. So 70 percent of young Democrats were with one of the two progressive candidates.
I think a lot of this goes back to Barack Obama, because the election of Barack Obama was an incredible, mobilizing moment for so many young people who cast their first presidential vote for the first black president. He won in this unbelievable historic moment that many people remember as one of their first moments of political awareness, one of the first times they participated in the political process. He was somebody who was cool and gave these soaring speeches. He created in many young people a sense that your vote was something you only gave to somebody who you truly believed in.
And I think that that is something that’s going to be a real challenge for Democrats, because young people will vote if they really believe in somebody, if they think it’s incredibly important and if they feel like it is a major transformative moment. What you’re seeing in youth-voting patterns is that when there is an uninspiring candidate or somebody where it doesn’t feel that urgent, they don’t show up. And I think that that’s one of the main reasons that Hillary Clinton struggled with young people. The Democratic Party should worry that if they nominate somebody who doesn’t really speak to these young voters, they risk a lot of them not showing up because young voters don’t think of voting as a duty. They think of it as something that they need to be inspired to do.
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