Is this the end of Civilization?

This Is Collapse — Some of Us Just Aren’t Paying Attention

Food, Water, Energy, Money. How Many Crises Can a Civilization Take? We’re Finding Out the Hard Way

Written by Umair Haque and published in, 6/8/2022

Image Credit: The Financial Times

How are you feeling these days? I hope you’re all doing OK, well, even. Me? I’m…hanging in there. I’m a little under the weather today so I’ll try to keep this brief. OK — LOL. At least shorter than usual.

If you look around, and if you’re observant, you can begin to notice something profoundly disturbing happening to our world. Our civilization is beginning to visibly fail. Over the last few years, I’ve warned of civilizational collapse. I’ve predicted failures of all kinds, that our basic systems would begin to shatter and break. And now you see it beginning to happen.

When I talk about civilizational collapse, people seem to think it’s some kind of prediction. It’s not — not anymore. My Western friends are lost in comic book movies and Instagram bodies and billionaire fantasies and dueling celebrities. But if you look at the world for just one second, what do you see?

Let me take you on a brief tour of a civilization that’s now beginning to collapse in earnest.

The basic systems of our civilization are now visibly coming undone. This is a change. It’s the beginning of a long-run trend, which will define the rest of our lives and beyond. On a dying planet, things don’t work. Every kind of system fails. It’s not just about the war in Ukraine. System failure is a problem of a dying planet. And so is war, like in Ukraine, which is about controlling our dying planet’s dwindling food and energy supplies.

What systems can you see failing — if you only look? They’re hidden in plain sight.

Let’s begin with the global food crisis. Everyone from the UN to the World Bank is warning of one that’s a “catastrophe.” Those aren’t my words, that’s the Economist, this time. You can probably feel it in your own life. How fast have the price of your everyday groceries, meat, produce, bread, milk, risen? Maybe skyrocketed is the better word. As my lovely wife put it, over the last year “every day everything got more expensive.”

It’s OK for “people like us.” You, me, the average Westerner. Even if we’re hurting these days, we’re still relatively affluent. But as Antonio Guterres has warned, the impending food crisis is going to horrific for much of the world. Many of the world’s poorer countries and regions are net food importers. Shortages will hit them especially hard — and people will starve.

When I talk to my Western friends about issues like this — global hunger — they don’t get it. Not anymore. They just don’t care. It’s not just that they’re indifferent, lulled into numbness by Marvel Movies — Aquaman will feed the world!! — it’s that way back in the 80s, all this got turned on its head. Celebrities did a good thing and tried to “feed the world” — remember that song? But the net effect was that the average person now sees it as a kind of cultural issue. My Western friends don’t get how incredibly, shockingly bad this really is.

So let me tell you. In Afghanistan, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, people are starving. Look at this picture of a starving baby from Afghanistan. Look at it. Look at it. That poor child looks like a haunted, broken thing. A skeleton. Does any baby deserve that?

So do you know what parents are doing in Afghanistan to feed their kids? What would you do if you saw your child turning to bones before your very eyes? Would you cry? Scream? Rage at the horror of it?

They’re selling their organs. People are selling their organs to feed their starving kids. This is the world we live in. My Western friends, trapped in their idiots’ paradise of Marvel Movies, not only can’t imagine it — they don’t bother to notice it.

That is a measure of moral emptiness — and that’s not just an empty jeremiad. It’s why their societies are falling apart, too. You can’t not care about people selling their organs to feed their starving kids and then hope the fascists and theocrats don’t come for you, too. That’s not how this works. This thing called the project of human civilization.

To be a civilization where people are selling their organs to feed their kids — at this juncture in human history — is, in a nutshell, why our civilization is failing. How it is. This is what we reduce people to, still. It’s the 21st century. Talk to me about progress, sure — but don’t also stop noticing how badly we have failed as a civilization, whose test is how the most vulnerable are treated. The most vulnerable people in our civilization? They’re not “like that” Afghanistani child above. They are that child. And we treat them in unspeakable ways. What does it mean to reduce a child to bones, to starve them, for their parents to sell organs in a desperate, futile attempt to feed them milk?

But another reason my Western friends don’t care is that, well, life is getting hard for them, too. It’s hard to have sympathy for a starving baby from some country a million miles away — when your own country, America, is struck by a food crisis, too. And you can’t get baby formula for your own kids. At that point, distinctions cease to matter. When you can’t provide for your own, empathy quickly runs out. It dries up and turns to dust. All you can think about is your own baby.

America’s baby formula shortage isn’t really about what Americans think it is. A factory being shut down, not even the centralization of production in a few factories. Sorry, wrong — proximate causes, sure, but not ultimate ones, real ones. Let me tell you the true cause.

To avert this catastrophic global food crisis, do you know how much the World Food Program needs? $22 billion. In other words, Jeff Bezos or Gates or the rest of the billionaires gang could stop, prevent, and end a global food crisis in a microsecond, and still have so much money left over they’d still be mega-billionaires.

How much richer did billionaires get during the pandemic alone? $trillion. In other words, billionaires got a hundred times richer just during the pandemic than it would take to end a global food crisis erupting now. A hundred times.

Something is very, very wrong with a civilization like that. That something is that it concentrates too much wealth in too few hands, and there is an endemic, chronic lack of investment in things people need. Those few hands where wealth is concentrated “own” everything — and that is how you get to a world where production is centralized in a handful of factories and so forth. Baby formula? Come on, it’s something that should be produced in every city, region, state. It shouldn’t just be produced in a tiny number of factories in a big, big country. That’s a recipe for collapse.

These economics are fatal. Remember Rome? What did Nero do? He fiddled and danced a jig and sang…while Rome burned. What did Caligula do while the gates crumbled? He had orgies, apparently, and gorged himself and his friends to the point they’d throw up in bowls…just so they could do it all over again. See any of today’s billionaires lifting a finger to stop the global food crisis?

But what do we even call someone who could prevent the deaths of millions of people…by lifting a finger…and doesn’t? If you could save a million babies like the one above — just by lifting a finger — wouldn’t you? If you didn’t, what would it make you?

Perhaps you see my point.

This is civilizational collapse.

The food crisis isn’t just about food, of course. It’s about the real problem at the heart of our civilization. Money. Prices are skyrocketing even in rich countries — especially in rich ones. But even there, life has become a struggle. In America, of course, the average person is perpetually indebted, because they can’t make ends meet to begin with. So what happens when food gets more expensive by the day — and never stops?

But it’s hardly just food, either. Western America’s in drought — and weirdly, again, nobody much seems to care. Maybe it’s happened before. But this time is different. It’s not seasonal. Lake Mead is at risk of dying. Everything on a dying planet is — take heed. And yet from its waters tens of millions of people survive — and so do many of America’s crops. What happens as it runs dry? What happens when the water runs out?

The answer to that question is: nobody knows. And that’s a very, very big problem. Because we should know. There should be some kind of plan. Because it’s happening before our very eyes. But even in the richest countries, like America, there’s no plan, literally, to deal with any of these crises — food, water, money. Leaders are just like deer in the headlights. They can’t seem to believe it’s happening, even though they’ve been warned, at this point, for literally decades, by people like me, by people much smarter than me. They’ve had decades upon decades to prepare — and yet there America is, unable to feed its babies formula, without a plan for what happens when the water runs out, without enough money to go around.

So how bad do you think the situation is in poorer countries? It’s getting to be catastrophic. Many of the poor people fleeing to America’s southern border are at this point climate refugees. As the planet warms, harvests in their countries have dried up. Water systems have failed — water’s a problem across much of the region. Money, of course, is in short supply. And so they head north. It’s not just that they want to go to America — it’s that the North of a planet which is dying because of the heat is what’s going to survive.

Did you see the warning about yet another system failing? NERC — America’s energy grid regulator — warned just the other day that because it was going to be an especially hot summer, expect blackouts and brownouts. “Persistent, extreme drought and its accompanying weather patterns, however, are out of the ordinary and tend to create extra stresses on electricity supply and demand.” LOL — thanks for the warning, I don’t mean to poke fun at fine people doing good work — but none of this is “out of the ordinary.” Every summer is going to be like this, and it’s going to get much worse, fast. Hello, we are living on a planet that’s currently heating up at light speed.

America’s energy grids are beginning to fail. Americans don’t often stop to think about that, but they should, because, well, what happens when the power goes out? Everything in society grinds to a halt. Hospitals stop functioning. Businesses close their doors. Work grinds to a halt. Everything just stops. And so there’s of course a consequential knock-on effect on the economy as a whole. Which leads to unemployment, recession, more inflation, and so forth.

Energy grids going down are a very, very bad thing. But of course, this is another consequence of not having invested in systems that are fit for now — just depending on old, broken, industrial age ones, like America’s ancient, creaking energy grid.

What’s the list we’ve made so far. Food. Water. Money. Energy.

Those are all of a civilization’s basic systems.

Let me say it again.

Those are all of a civilizations’s basic systems. These systems are already under profound stress in America — breaking visibly before our eyes. They are already shattering around much of our world. If they’re crumbling in a rich country like America — how bad do you think it’s going to be in poor ones? Want to live in the kind of world where you have to get water delivered — and so it becomes a privilege for the wealthy? Where just affording food is a stretch? That’s how much of humanity has lived, but progress means the opposite. We are heading in the wrong direction. We are growing poorer as a civilization, now, fast. That is what all these crises mean.

A food crisis. A water crisis. An energy crisis. A — if you count Covid — public health crisis. A money crisis so absurd and demonically evil that it’d make Caligula develop a conscience — billionaires who could solve those crises by swiping on an iPhone. Who could prevent millions of deaths — but won’t, and what do you call a person like that?

How many crises can a civilization have at once?

We’re finding out the hard way. And that is what I mean when I say that I don’t warn of civilization collapse, or predict it anymore. Now I’m watch it happen. And so, if you’re looking — if you’re not too busy desperately living it — are you.

Going our separate ways

Welcome To The Autonomous States of America

Written by Herb Bowie and published in 5/5/2022

Poster map of United States of America with state names
Image Credit: iStock / FoxysGraphic

Based on a recently leaked draft majority opinion, it now seems virtually certain that Roe v. Wade will be overturned by the US Supreme Court sometime this summer.

I say this because the arguments contained in the leaked draft really leave no room for ambiguity or doubt or equivocation: they unflinchingly lambast the original Roe v. Wade decision as deeply flawed, and without a single redeeming judicial characteristic.

And so, with one breath, the house of cards holding up universal abortion access in America appears about to fall.

Instead, every state will once again be empowered to set its own rules on abortion, and we will have taken one more step away from the United States of America, and towards the disjointed, discombobulated, and largely autonomous fifty states of middle North America.

In many ways, this should not be surprising.

We know that a drive for autonomy is one of the key motivators for all humans. And we know that local autonomy is one of the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups, even as group sizes scale to larger populations. And so, quite naturally, each of our fifty states wants to assert and express its independence from our federal government.

And we know that, as a country, the US is riven by vast differences between its various parts. Consider:

  • We have two states that are not part of the contiguous, continental US at all, with one, Alaska, being close to polar, and the other, Hawaii, being close to equatorial.
  • Even within the contiguous 48 states, we have a number of separate regions that are very different from each other in significant ways: the Pacific coast, the Southwest, the Western plains, the Midwest, the Northeast and the Southeast, just to name the obvious ones. Differences in climate, history, culture, economics and degrees of urbanization are just some of the ways in which these regions differ from one another.
  • We have a number of states with significant coastlines, along one of two different oceans, with many of these states containing at least one major seaport, and one international airport, providing easy and regular access for goods and people entering and leaving the country.
  • On the other hand, we have a number of inland states that are landlocked, and harder to access, especially for international commerce and travel.
  • We have a number of highly populous urban areas — generally close to oceans, or to our Great Lakes, and/or to our national borders — but much of our country consists of vast tracts that are still sparsely populated.

Looking back on our US history, we can also see that some of the phenomena that once brought us together as a nation have been on the decline for some time now. Consider:

  • When the US was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, we came together as a nation to defeat fascism in WW II.
  • During the Cold War, and the race to land a man on the moon, fears of communism brought us together as a nation.
  • Broadcast TV news, as presented on our three major networks, helped to bring us together as a nation, as we all viewed the same images, with largely congruent commentary, at virtually the same time.

For the last several decades, however:

  • Technology has fragmented and fractured our news media.
  • Globalization has diluted our national identity, without providing any sort of cohesive new larger identity capable of serving as a suitable replacement.
  • Starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, our federal government has often been seen as bloated, unhelpful, ineffective, bureaucratic and guilty of massive overreach.

On top of all this, we have the anthropological phenomenon of schismogenesis going on, which I have recently learned about through the book The Dawn of Everything, by Davids Graeber and Wengrow. This book presents multiple instances in early human times when two different societies in close proximity to one another, and fully aware of each other, seemed to develop in contrarian ways that can only be explained by their innate urges to just be different from those other folks.

And so, when we look at what we think of as the partisan divide in our country, we at some point may have to accept that this is not a temporary aberration — some deviation from the historical norm that is bound to diminish over time simply through a regression toward the mean — but a more-or-less permanent feature of our national identity.

What then?

  • We may see more US citizens and companies voting with their feet, to move to one state or another, based on differences in things like abortion access.
  • The Democratic party, in particular, may find itself challenged to refocus its efforts to target governorships and state legislatures rather than placing so many of its eggs in the federal basket.
  • The forces of aggrievement that increasingly seem to power our politics may well swing in the direction of more progressive interests: overturning Roe v. Wade might well take the wind out of Republican sails, and start to fill Democratic equivalents, as women are denied abortions and forced by the state to bear unwanted children.
  • Republicans may well find that they should have been more careful about what they wished for, as their governors and legislatures become freed to do more truly stupid and terrible things, and their citizens begin to take a harder look at the realities their votes have engendered, and begin to experience buyer’s remorse.

Many of us may not like what this brave new world of disarray will look like, but at least for now, there may not be much we can do to hold it back.

If Republicans Succeed

What Happens When the GOP Catches the Car?

When minority rule and unpopular policies collide

Written by George Dillard and published in 5/5/2022

Wikimedia Commons

My dog hates UPS trucks (and Amazon trucks, and motorcycles, and mail trucks). We’ll be walking on a sidewalk when the hated delivery guy drives by, and she’ll mightily lunge and strain to get at him. But, of course, she’s leashed, so (hopefully) we’ll never find out what would happen if my dog had a climactic showdown with the UPS truck.

The Republican Party is like my dog (in this regard only — my dog is far more kind, dignified, and lovable than most of the current GOP). They’ve been straining toward objectives that seemed unreachable, but have been restrained from reaching them. But they’ve also been gnawing on the leash that holds them back. The leash seems about to break, and we’ll see what happens when the Republican Party gets exactly what they’ve wanted for so long.

What does the GOP want? A set of staggeringly unpopular policies. The modern GOP stands for (as far as I can tell; the party no longer has an official platform):

  • Fewer restrictions on guns
  • More restrictions on abortion
  • Tax cuts for the wealthy
  • Making it harder to vote
  • Undermining the legitimacy of our democracy
  • Inaction on climate change

All of these policy initiatives are unpopular, some of them staggeringly so:

Republican politicians have spent the last decade or so — especially since Donald Trump took control of the party — performatively promising more and more radical action, especially on culture-war issues like abortion and guns, to their base. The hard-core partisans love it and have rewarded politicians who have taken the most extreme positions on these issues.

In my state of Ohio, the recent Republican Senate primary was a good example of this. It became a contest between several candidates, some of whom used to seem to be reasonable, to see who could chuck the reddest meat to the base. They kissed Trump’s ring (despite most of them having opposed him in 2016), glorified guns, burned facemasks, and lied about the election in a disgusting race to the bottom.

The modern GOP has had a great time chasing these particular cars. They’ve raised millions of dollars and won low-turnout primaries by promising to implement extreme policies that the broad majority of Americans oppose. They’ve created a whole outrage industry on cable news and the internet that encourages their base to pressure politicians in more extreme directions.

But, at the same time as their policies have become less popular, the Republicans have been gaining more actual power in government. They’ve spent the last few decades systematically taking over school boards, gerrymandering state legislatures, filling the federal judiciary with right-wingers, and using the pro-rural biases of the Senate and Electoral College to gain more power than their popular support merits. Now the GOP controls most state legislatures and the federal judiciary. After the midterms, they’ll likely control both houses of Congress. They very well may win the White House in 2024. They’re homing in on that UPS truck.

The obvious test case here is abortion. Let’s imagine that the Supreme Court goes through with its apparent desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. For many on the right, this is the summit of their political mountain. They can make good on decades of promises and hard work (including breaking many of the norms surrounding Supreme Court justice nominations — remember Merrick Garland?) by… doing something that a very consistent majority of Americans (the number has varied between 52%-66% since 1989) definitely don’t want to see.

We’re about to find out what happens when two of the big political trends of the last several decades — the increasingly unpopular extremism of the Republican Party combined with its increasing ability to exert power over all three branches of government due to demographic and structural advantages — collide.

Of course, these two trends are related. One reason that the GOP has been able to become extreme (exemplified by the Ohio Senate seat that will likely pass from “reasonable moderate” Rob Portman to “shameless Trump sycophant/culture warrior” J.D. Vance) is its structural advantage. The party knows that, through gerrymandering and hardball tactics, they can wield power despite the fact that they are in the minority most of the time. Look at the conduct of many Republican-controlled statehouses — many representatives in safe seats feel emboldened to pursue truly extreme policies.

Need I remind you that the GOP has only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since 2000 while winning the Electoral College in three of the six elections in that period? It’s not just the presidency — according to FiveThirtyEight, “the House map has had a Republican bias since at least 1968,” while the Senate has leaned toward the GOP since the 1940s. These structural advantages mean that the GOP gets more say over non-elected parts of the government, too — remember that Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, likely three-fifths of the coalition that will eviscerate Roe, would not be Supreme Court justices if the popular vote decided presidential elections (Samuel Alito, who wrote the draft abortion opinion, would likely not be on the court either, had Al Gore become president by popular vote in 2000).

We’ve been living in a country that, while not explicitly ruled by a political minority, has been veering in that direction for a while. The political minority has been doing unpopular things, all the while subverting our democratic order. It’s likely to soon do some even more unpopular things that will make it even more of a minority.

The big question is — what happens after that? It’s possible that the GOP enacts its agenda, and then becomes toxic enough that it decisively loses a few elections, causing it to moderate its positions. It’s also possible that the GOP enacts its unpopular agenda and becomes even more unpopular, but continues to win its fair share of elections due to its structural advantages.

What would happen if, despite losing the popular vote far more often than not, a minority party inflicted its agenda on an unwilling public? Would our system hold, or would a situation like this unleash unpredictable forces?

I hope we don’t have to find out.

Abortion Decision Draft

What’s Missing from Alito’s Decision to Revoke the Right to Abortion

In a leaked draft, the Justice points to “history and tradition” but ignores the context of both the past and the present.

By Jessica Winter and published in the New Yorker May 3, 2022

Just in time for Mother’s Day, a draft of the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court case focussing on the constitutionality of a fifteen-week abortion ban in Mississippi, was leaked to Politico, which published it on Monday night. In the draft, Justice Samuel Alito repeatedly cites the Fourteenth Amendment, which specifies that any right conferred by its due-process clause must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The right to an abortion—which Roe v. Wade and its successor, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ascribed to the due-process clause—has no such roots, Alito argues. “Until the latter part of the 20th century,” he writes, “there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None.” Alito is entirely correct that, in 1973, the Supreme Court was somewhat out of step with its time in codifying women’s rights. When Roe was decided, a married woman in the United States needed her husband’s permission to get a credit card, something that did not change until 1974. No state outlawed marital rape until 1975. No man was found liable for sexual harassment until 1977. Pregnancy was a fireable offense until 1978. Alito does not itemize forms of gender-based subjugation that persisted after Roe, many of which might be persuasively argued as “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” But the history of such discrimination offers helpful context for why some conservatives might have seen the legalization of abortion—and the freedom that it conferred on women—as so radical, so potentially destructive to the social order, that they would spend nearly fifty years working toward its reversal.

Other, more recent Supreme Court decisions have rested on the presumption of a right to privacy in the due-process clause—Lawrence v. Texas, for example, which struck down so-called sodomy laws across the country, or Obergefell v. Hodges, which enshrined the right to same-sex marriage. Some conservatives viewed these progressive victories in the same apocalyptic terms as they did Roe, and some progressive activists are legitimately concerned that, if finalized, the decision in Dobbs will open the door to dismantling L.G.B.T.Q. rights. But the draft opinion, which upholds Mississippi’s ban on abortion after fifteen weeks of pregnancy, is careful to specify that reproductive rights are special, even unique. No other issue involves “the critical moral question posed by abortion”—i.e., the rights, the standing, the precise ontology of “fetal life,” “potential life,” or “an unborn human being.” This uncertainty, Alito writes, requires the Court to “return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” He adds, “At the time of Roe, 30 States still prohibited abortion at all stages. In the years prior to that decision, about a third of the States had liberalized their laws, but Roe abruptly ended that political process.” (The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw Roe in broadly similar terms—as an interruption to a more organic, less contentious advance of reproductive rights—albeit from the other side of the aisle.) Roe intruded on the will of the people, Alito contends. The decision was “exceptionally weak,” an “abuse of judicial authority,” “egregiously wrong from the start,” and one that “short-circuited the democratic process.”


If a majority of the Supreme Court decrees that Roe is, at its core, a subversion of American democracy, then there is some symmetry in the fact that four of the five Justices voting to end it were appointed by men who won the Presidency despite losing the popular vote, that three of them were appointed by a man who was twice impeached, and that one was appointed to an essentially stolen seat. A majority of Americans support abortion rights, but Republican-controlled legislatures in heavily gerrymandered states do not, and it is those lopsided governing bodies that are responsible for Mississippi’s fifteen-week ban, for Texas’s six-week ban, and for bills that would restrict or ban abortions in at least twenty-one other states should Roe be officially overturned. On the national level, gerrymandered districts in the House, conservative overrepresentation in the Senate, and Joe Manchin’s dedication to the filibuster will almost certainly doom any federal action that President Biden may attempt. Minoritarian rule, regardless of its merits, is also deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition, and it is grimly easy to foretell what will result from it now: an increase in adverse maternal-health outcomes, especially for poor women and Black and brown women; unjust prosecutions of women who suffer miscarriages; enormous pressure on already overtaxed clinics in states that preserve abortion rights; and more.

To the layperson, at least, the decades-long debate—undertaken by scholars on the left as well as the right—about if or where a right to abortion is found in the Constitution can look like a pedantic fixation. Childbirth can be physically and psychologically debilitating, and so can parenthood, even in the most favorable and desired circumstances; it would not seem to require a law degree to determine that carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term and being forced to give birth is a matter of life and liberty. Abortion rights are only a part of one of the central, most vexing, most consequential questions of our entire judicial system: Who does your body belong to? Who is in possession of you, of your self, at any given moment in your life? Is it you? Is it your parent, is it your spouse or sexual partner, is it a physician, is it a police officer or prison warden, is it a state legislature, is it the God you pray to? Is it Samuel Alito?

Lewis Powell, a moderate Nixon appointee to the Supreme Court, voted with the majority in Roe, following an incident in which a young colleague at his law firm came to him in desperation after his girlfriend bled to death as a result of a botched abortion. (Powell intervened with the local prosecutor on the young man’s behalf, and no charges were filed against him.) Powell was confronted with a body that had been harmed by the law, and he acted accordingly. In the Dobbs decision, Alito nods a bit at women’s lived experiences in a manner at once abstract and upbeat, implying that the need for abortion has diminished since 1973, owing to weakened stigmas against single mothers, prohibitions on pregnancy discrimination, and the fact that parental leave “is guaranteed by law in many cases,” among other reasons. He does not mention that American women have the highest maternal-mortality rates in the industrialized world, that America is the only industrialized nation without mandated paid leave, that sixteen per cent of its children live in poverty, that it spends something like two per cent of what some Scandinavian countries do on day care per toddler. Alito does not quantify what the end of Roe means, nor does he personify it; there are no women here. There is “the womb”—the generic vessel outside of which the fetus cannot survive—but there is no body. For all the suffering and havoc that may result from this decision, it is a bloodless text, on a matter that is all blood.

The Nine Tribes of American Politics

There’s so much more than “Red versus Blue”

Photo by Harry Quan on Unsplash

Written by Daniel Mcintosh and published in 5/2/2022

The American political system, a “first past the post” system of elections, leads to unnatural division in American politics. Republican and Democratic, Red and Blue, one of the few beliefs all share is they have a fundamental disagreement about core American values. To some degree, that’s true. But these two groups are also coalitions of people with disagreements among themselves. They have more in common than they believe, and many people do not fit into either side.

The Pew Research Center has studied the American electorate for decades. Pew’s public opinion research began in the early 1990s. It tracks economic, social, and demographic trends. It monitors social media. Pew manages an American Trends Panel of over 10,000 adults selected at random from across the U.S. whose attitudes are tracked over time. The methods are complex and surveys are “raked” to compensate for the known variations in the population. It’s expensive to do. It’s cross-checked. And it’s the most reliable picture of the American public.

And guess what? It doesn’t fall into simple categories of “Red” and “Blue”.

The nine tribes

To make sense of the values of the American people requires a typology of no less than nine distinct groups. Some are part of the Republican coalition. Some vote with the Democrats. Some are political independents. Some refuse to get involved with American politics at all. If you wonder which group you fall into before we proceed, take this quiz. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers — they are questions of perceptions and values. The quiz shows where you are most comfortable among the nine tribes of American politics.

Pew’s labels for the nine tribes, their distribution among the general population, and their involvement with the political parties are:

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

It may not be so clear to their political opponents that “committed conservatives” have deep differences with the “populist right,” and both are uncomfortable with “flag and faith conservatives.” There are “never Trump” Republicans. “Democratic mainstays” have deep differences with “establishment liberals” and both are uncomfortable with the “progressive left.” Both Joe Manchin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticize Joe Biden — but from very different perspectives.

And the “stressed sideliners”? Fifteen percent of the public has a mix of liberal and conservative views but shares a minimal interest in politics. Most are women. Most are White. They have less formal education and live in lower-income households. They also have a lower than average sense of social trust. Only ten percent of them bother to vote. For many of them, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. When they vote, they split their votes between both coalitions.

The Republican coalition

The Republican voters are three very different conservatives, plus libertarians who voted for Trump but want him to leave.

Flag and faith conservatives are the most likely to say that any political compromise is “selling out on what you believe in.” They are, as the name implies, the most likely to believe that government should promote and protect (their) religion and its values. White and Christian, they are also firm believers in American exceptionalism: God places the U.S. above all other nations and America has a responsibility to lead the world from a position of strength. They are an important part of the Trump core, more likely to say the 2020 election was stolen, and least concerned with the January 2021 attack on the Capitol. Many of those who stormed the Capitol were from this group.

Committed conservatives also express conservative views across all issues, but without the stridency. They are open to compromise on issues of immigration and have a more nuanced understanding of America’s role in the world. They are the most likely to see the business of America to be business and to accept that a global economy requires a global perspective.

The populist right is noteworthy for having less formal education and being the most likely to live in rural areas. They are very critical of both immigrants and corporations. They are also a core of the Trump base and are sometimes willing to take violent action on his behalf.

The ambivalent right is the youngest group, and the least committed to the Republican party. They agree with pursuing small government, but that’s because they believe the role of government is to leave them alone. Market-oriented, they see issues of race and gender as better left to emergent social change than government intervention. More libertarian than other groups, they voted for Donald Trump but have no respect for him as a person. Unlike other groups, they support legal abortion and the decriminalization of marijuana. The largest group in the Republican coalition, it is also the least religious.

The Democratic coalition

The four tribes in the Democratic coalition range from political moderates to democratic socialists.

Democratic mainstays are unshakable supporters of the New Deal and the legislation of the 1960s and 1970s to protect women and minorities. However, they see little reason to further extend these reforms, believing that America has no need for radical change. The oldest of the Democrats, most identify as moderates. They are more comfortable with FDR and JFK than they are with AOC or Karl Marx. They fight for social security and against affirmative action. The largest group in the Democratic Party sometimes fears the Party is too busy pandering to the Left to listen to them and their needs.

The establishment liberals share with the democratic mainstays a distrust of radical change. Preservation of what they have achieved — always. Experimentation with reforms to better reach the promise of political and economic equality, yes, but never at the risk of radicalism. They agree that there are problems that need to be addressed, but one step at a time. These are the people willing to entertain reform of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) but oppose the creation of a national health care system similar to those common in Europe.

The progressive left rejects what is and supports fundamental structural changes to address injustice based on race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation. Many see Europe as a model for the future of the U.S. They are the best-educated group, relatively young, and the only tribe in the Democratic Party that has a majority of non-Hispanic Whites. They also include the emerging democratic socialist bloc in the Congress and the Party.

The outsider left, like the ambivalent right, are both the youngest members of the coalition and the ones with the least personal loyalty to it. While they voted as a bloc for Joe Biden, they feel frustrated with the political system. They aren’t so much pro-Democrat as anti-Republican. If the ambivalent right is where one is most likely to find right-libertarians, the outsider left is the place to find left-libertarians. Both groups want personal liberty, but the outsider left believes the only way to achieve it is to use government as a countervailing force to compensate for the inequities built into the economic and political system, while the ambivalent right sees the government as a cure worse than the disease.

What are they fighting about?

Pew identifies two issues as the dividing lines in American politics: racial injustice and the size of government. The Republican coalition either does not see racial inequality or sees it as something that is beyond political intervention. The Democratic coalition unites in perceiving a serious problem with racial inequality but differs over how much change is required to deal with it: working within the system or changing the system at its roots.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Within each coalition, the differences are as great as the common ground. While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to prefer a larger government, only the progressive left favored that services be greatly expanded. The Republicans agree that government should be smaller. They differ on what it should do: enforce traditional values, or get out of the way.

Is there room in the middle?

The differences within each coalition and, in particular, the loyalties and values of the youngest members of each coalition suggest there is a middle ground that could form the core of a new political party. The populist right differs from the rest of the GOP over issues of taxes and economic policies. In their views on corporate profits and taxes on the wealthy, this group has more in common with the Democrats than they do with the Republicans.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Another area of common ground regards the standing of the U.S. in the world. Six of the nine tribes — ranging from establishment liberals to the populist right — describe the U.S. as among the best countries in the world. Only a majority of the faith and flag conservatives believe the United States stands above all other countries. Only in the progressive left and the outsider left are a majority willing to say there are countries better than the U.S.

The greatest number of self-identified independents, people who could serve as the core of a third political party — among the outsider left, the stressed sideliners, and the ambivalent right — poll near the center of American politics: conservative on economic issues, libertarian (left and right) on social issues. These young people are located to become the cohort to replace the democratic mainstays at the center.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, these are also the people with the least engagement with American politics. Perhaps they are waiting for somebody who speaks for them. But the leaders of each of the major political parties have worked for decades to institutionalize themselves as the only choices available to the voters. We’re less likely to see a new party emerge than a capture of one by elements of its coalition, followed by a migration of other members of each coalition to adapt to the new political realities.

What do Americans have in common?

In global terms, the United States is a deviant case. Whether that deviance is a positive thing or negative depends on which of the nine tribes you are in.

The World Values Survey (WVS) is an international effort to identify people’s values and beliefs all around the world. Begun in 1981, it has grown from a Eurocentric study into a network of social scientists conducting surveys in almost 100 countries that enables one to trace the relative positions and movements of cultural civilizations. They plot their findings across two dimensions:

  • traditional versus secular, and
  • survival versus emancipation

Tradition emphasizes deference to authority in religion, tradition, family, and nation. Traditional cultures are local, nationalistic, exclusionary, and prefer stability over change.

Secularism emphasizes reason, experimentation, acceptance, and change.

Survival values economic and physical security. It also includes ethnocentrism, intolerance, and low levels of trust.

Emancipation and self-expression values give priority to reason and tolerance (or celebration) of diversity and equality among peoples, sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. They encourage the protection of the environment, as well as greater participation in political decisions and civic life.

Researchers plot these values at right angles: tradition to secularism on the X-axis, survival to emancipation on the Y-axis.

Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map — World Values Survey 7 (2020), Creative Commons

The general model of the survey is that modernization is important, but only in how it relates to religious and cultural traditions. While the position of any country on the map changes with time, it drifts slowly. Our history and our culture shape us. For example, while protestant Europe is less religious than ever before, it maintains values that shape its citizens and socialize its immigrants.

American politics and culture wars

It also is why “culture wars” have become so important in American politics. Note that the United States is less secular than most of Europe, and more oriented to self-expression than most of the rest of the world. It lies near the intersection of the English-speaking world, Catholic Europe, and Latin America. That means it is more likely to get into arguments about matters of values, and more likely to tie those value arguments to religious positions. Hence we have the conflict between “faith and flag conservatives” who might support a constitutional amendment requiring a president to be an evangelical Christian and a “progressive left” that rejects any notion of public policy grounded in (and for) any religion.

So while America is unique, because it sits in a special region of the global distribution, it also varies in terms of the two dimensions. Within the global chart, we can make a similar chart for the nine American tribes:

McIntosh, 2022, Creative Commons

The midpoint between tradition and secularism is the dividing line between the Democratic and the Republican coalitions. Midway between survival and emancipation values is the dividing line between those who see their way of life at risk and those who do not. The American “political spectrum” runs diagonally, from the bottom left (radical fundamentalists) to the upper right (radical progressives).

Again, this is not the full range of possible political ideologies or values. You don’t see serious calls for Islamic theocracy or a return to monarchy. America as a whole is near the middle of the map between tradition and secularism and left of the center in emphasizing personal empowerment over group stasis. There is also an extensive region in the center of the American political map where it is possible for parties to compromise and agree, even if the radicals at each end of the spectrum perceive all of “the other” as the enemy.

America needs a conversation among its tribes

America needs a variety of perspectives because each points to one of a series of fundamental truths that Americans ignore at their peril. The conservatives are right: society is miraculous and more fragile than most people believe. Humans are not insects: we have not evolved to live and function in large groups. Our saving grace is we have developed the capacity for culture: tradition, religion, laws, norms. Culture makes modern society possible and maintains it.

But the progressives are right, too: the culture we have is not the only culture possible, nor is it the best in terms of the emancipation of human potential as individuals and as a society. In addition, as circumstances change, cultures must adapt. Experiments are sometimes required. Diversity is not something to deny or repress, but to celebrate. It is our diversity, as well as our traditions, that provides the foundation that makes resilience possible. Experiments are important. Change is necessary.

And the moderates have something equally important to add: many experiments fail. Too great a step in any direction, too quickly, risks catastrophe. Either it does not cope well with the changes in the world (including both the physical world and other cultures), or it prompts a reaction that swings a society to fundamentalism that claims to bring the society “back” (by jihad, or by Trump) to a mythological “golden age” when it was “great.”

We try to avoid these failures by anticipating consequences. We apply political ideologies and the best science available. But the reality is too complex to foresee, too sensitive to initial conditions, and so influenced by unanticipated consequences that a prediction (any prediction) is little more than a guess. Humans get things wrong, and we have to plan for that. The conservatives remind us we are on unsure footing. The progressives remind us we have to keep moving forward. The moderates remind us to take small steps and be ready to pull back when the path gives way.

America needs the insight of every tribe if it is to survive and improve. And except for a few criminals and sociopaths, most people are good. They mean well, even if they disagree on what the good life is, or how to best achieve it. An honest conversation between them, with compassion for fears and dedication to facts, is our best chance to create an America where both survival and emancipation are real, and traditions can coexist within a larger secular framework.

What is becoming of Society?

If it Feels Like Our Societies Are Losing Their Minds, That’s Because They Are

How Our Societies Have Been Mentally Poisoned — And Why They’re Turning Fascist

Written by Umair Haque and published in 4/20/2022

Image Credit: Jake May

If I had to pick a day that was a case study in the entire planet turning far right, that day would be yesterday. Why?

A 35 year old judge — ranked as “Not Qualified” by the American Bar Association — overturned the entire nation’s mask mandate during travel in America. The entire country’s. This wasn’t a judicial decision — it was a political one. She was appointed by Donald Trump, and married to one of his senior figures. This was a political decision made via nepotism, which suddenly changed the fate of the entire country.

Even though the far right’s not in power, it still manages to have power. More power than the rest. That is one thing a far right planet means, and it matters, because it says that the planet’s centre of political gravity has shifted so far to the right that the world hasn’t seen anything like it since the 1930s. An unqualified judge appointed by a President who led a bloody coup basically overturned the entire public health policy of America. Think about that for a second. Really think about it. The far right has more power than the rest of us even when it’s not in power — because it’s captured our institutions, and perverted them.

But that was just the beginning. What happened next was like a scene from a horror movie. In mid flight, airlines told people they should remove their masks. And cheering and applauding, they took them off. What level of idiocy is this? It’s beyond idiocy. Far beyond it. It is malignancy, of the narcissistic Machiavellian kind. It is the Dark Triad in action. Why?

Imagine that you were on one of those flights. And you were in any one of a number of groups at serious and severe risk from Covid. A cancer patient. Immunocompromised. Just elderly and frail. Young and ill with a serious disease. These people were cheering and applauding for your death.

No, nobody can claim ignorance. Not two and some years into a pandemic. We all know that certain people are still at severe risk, and there are many of them. To cheer and applaud and take off your mask while those people might be trapped in a tin can at 35,000 feet breathing recycled air is nothing short of a deathwish. It is seriously and badly psychologically warped.

Let me trace what I’m trying to say more formally. The far right has power even when it’s not in power. It abuses that power — to do things like overturn public health policies designed by doctors and scientists…at the hands of literally unqualified judges. And then people are licensed. Norms change. Social behaviour changes. A certain electric current runs through them.

It’s OK to hurt people. It’s good and right and justified. It’s fun. It feels good.

The far right has made it OK to want to hurt peopleOur societies are falling apart as a result.

Let me give you another example. A State Senator named Mallory McMorrow faced another tactic that’s become normalised in our societies now. She was smeared as a pedophile. She’s — in her own words — “A Christian suburban mom.” Why did they smear her? Because they could. Because it’s OK to hurt people now.

Increasingly, anything goes. Perfectly normal to smear a mom as a pedophile just because she sits across the political aisle from you. It’s not normalIt’s not OK. It’s badly, badly wrong — and in a democracy, for a democracy, it is slitting its throat.

The far right is making people lose their minds. I mean that in a formal sense, too. In a democracy, we have certain norms and codes. We don’t want to hurt people. That is the fundamental code which governs social behaviour. We act in good faith, not bad faith. We don’t deliberately tell lies about people — we speak truths about them. We don’t act with malice, but with a certain level of kindness and dedication to the truth.

Why do we have those norms? Because they enact what democracy isDemocracy isn’t just voting. In Rwanda, the President “wins” 99.8% of the vote — but it’s not a democracy. Democracy is the living, breathing expression of a certain set of values. Truth, justice, equality, law, freedom.

We don’t lie about other people, act in bad faith, be deliberately malicious towards them because it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

What are these forms of behaviour, really? If a child did them, we’d call them “bullying.” But these aren’t children. The people clapping and applauding taking off masks on planes — with zero regard for anyone but themselves — are not children. They are adults. And when adults engage in these forms of behaviour, we place them on a spectrum of violence. That spectrum ranges from aggression to hostility to real harm.

That is where our societies are now. Grown adults have lost their minds. The far right has goaded them on the one hand, to see everyone else as a scapegoat. With the other, it has licensed them to act with malice, to do violence. The result is that people are being driven mad with hate.

I really mean that. It is not remotely normal or OK in a democratic, civilized society for people to cheer and applaud the potential death of their fellow citizens. Especially the vulnerable. It’s not OK to smear your fellow politicians as pedophiles — the attack made on Mallory McMorrow, Ketanji Brown Jackson, which stems from the lunatic conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton drinks kids bloods after Satanically ritually abusing them.

People are losing their minds. They are becoming incapable of acting like responsible adults in a democracy. Having a shred of concern for others. Telling the truth or seeking it. Regarding others as equals — not things to subjugate. Respecting the freedoms of others, like bodily autonomy.

The far right has told them that these things do not matter. That their fellow citizens are now their enemies. Things to destroy and wish death on.

And so the average person is increasingly unmoored from the basic norms of a civilized, democratic society. Anything goes, they feel. The far right has goaded, licensed, impelled, tortured them with lies…until they are quite literally losing their minds. Their democratic minds, their modern minds, their social minds.

All that is left in the place of those minds is the atavistic impulse to hate. To destroy. To ruin. To wreck. That impulse is one and the same, from the coup at the Capitol, where the far right smeared it with literal sh*t, to people taking their masks off on planes and cheering and applauding. Violence. Hate. The democratic, social, modern mind has been shut down by the far right, with lies, with incendiary theories, with fear-mongering delusions — and all that’s left is this lizard-brain primitive impulse to destroy and wreck the nearest thing, in an orgiastic frenzy of violence, hate, and rage.

Do you get what I’m getting at? How the impulse is one and the same?

There is a set of links I’m trying to draw here. The far right tells people that, no, they don’t have to respect democracy, its norms, that its values are the real threat to their prosperity and survival and belonging and sense of selfhood. They should have contempt for equality, truth, justice, freedom. What should they respect? The very opposite. Dominance, power, aggression, lies, violence.

It’s OK to smear someone with a lie, as long as it works. It’s OK to take your mask off on a plane, as long as an unqualified judge says it — never mind anyone else, from doctors to scientists to the vulnerable. It’s OK to say that everyone you don’t agree with is a pedophile, even if you know it’s not true, just as long as it works.

It’s OK…as long as. As long as the result is power.

The far right has weaponised everything. It has coded paranoid, delusional threats into literally every last bit of the fabric of our lives. Even masks. Wearing masks is not a “two-sided” issue. I’m not sending a signal when I wear a mask. It’s an act of basic medical and social responsibility, an act in itself. But it is a message when you don’t wear one. It makes the person sending that message feel dominant.

And that need for dominance arises precisely because the far right has coded submission, fear, rage, hate into literally everything, triggering people’s fears of annihilation and abandonment, their most primal fears. When you trigger a primal fear, you get primal rage.

Our societies are now increasingly made of this primal rage, and you never really know when you’re going to trigger it. You never know when the person beside you has surrendered their mind, lost it to the far right, and will just attack you. For what? For wearing a mask. Reading a book. Saying something to someone. Looking at something on your phone.

We are all beginning to live in fear of the atavistic rage of the far right. Because the far right has coded primal fear into everything. What’s everything? I used the example of masks, so let’s take another one. Books. Now if kids are read books that say there’s unicorns should be nice to turtles or whatever, suddenly, it’s a problem. Those books are being banned. Parents are literally calling for teachers to be fired over kids’ books. Because those books have been coded by the far right as containing the stuff of primal fear. This is going to poison your kids. It’s going to take your kids away from you. This isn’t a book, this is a weapon.

This isn’t a book, it’s a pedophile in disguise. Do you want your kids to be sexually abused? This isn’t a book! It looks like a book. It feels like a book. It’s not a book. It’s primal fear. You must hate and fear this object. It is dangerous. It will take away everything you love. It will hurt everything you love.

What do people do when they’re threatened like this? They hurt back, first. They strike pre-emptively.

That is why people cheer and applaud taking their masks off. They know full well it’s going to hurt others. That’s the point.

Let me try and sum that up. The far right is ascendant around the world now. How is it winning? It is coding primal fear into literally everything. Masks. Books. People themselves, even little kids. Their mere existence triggers primal fear, because danger has been coded into it. People, bewildered, baffled, stunned by the decline of world order, prosperity, stability, believe it. They’re bombarded with the far right coding primal fear into everything a thousand times a day.

Their minds stop working.

The far right’s leaders then legitimise reacting against all this coded primal fear. They’re going to hurt you! Hurt them first. Take off your mask, and teach them a lesson! Hey, call them pedophiles. As long as it works, it’s OK. The norms of democracy don’t matter anymore. You don’t have to obey them. You don’t have to use your social, democratic, mind. It’s better that you don’t. They’re trying to annihilate you.

You can’t obey the rules of democracy with people like that. As long as it works, whatever it is, it’s OK — because this is an existential fight. You want to survive, don’t you? Then you have to strike first, hard, and anything goes now.

You can’t not have noticed that people just seem totally unhinged now. Their minds don’t seem to work anymore. That’s because they actually don’t. The atavistic impulse of primal rage is all that’s left when primal fears are triggered. This is how the far right wins.

The far right’s strategy is incredibly successful. So successful, in fact, that it doesn’t even need to be in power to have power. That is because this strategy works at the deepest level of all.

That is how the far right is winning. The entire planet. This approach is exactly the same. From America, to Europe, to Britain, to India, to Russia. That’s what’s truly chilling about it. It differs not one bit. The basics are coding primal fear into everything, triggering primal rage, so that people abandon democratic norms in terror and fear, provoked into believing their very survival is at stake, that their kids will be raped, abused, killed, that they will be hurt. So they hurt backfirst.

We need to undo this vicious cycle. This is the single most important challenge of this decade. Yes, really. Because if we can’t stop it, we have no hope of stopping any larger one, from climate change to economic collapse.

We are becoming zombie democracies. The average person is losing their mind. They are not capable of handling the barrage of primal fear coming from the far right, and the far right knows it. They regress beyond infantile states, to truly primal states, and lash out in ways that even kids don’t. Now you know why this moment feels like this.

We need to stop this vicious cycle, fastThe far right has stumbled on an incredibly dangerous formula. A black magic spell which literally rips people’s minds apart. Turns them against democracy. And leaves them little more than quivering lizard-mind blobs of hate, regressed right back to a primal scream of rage, against an annihilatory world, striking out at in violence, anything goes, destroy, hate, kill — all that now coded into everything from masks to books to little children.

I really hope you grasp what I’m saying. I have never been so worried for our societies as right now. Because the entire planet should not be turning far right. Ever. That it is, now, is a testament to how powerful this black magic of tearing people’s minds apart really is. It is the most devious thing history’s seen in a very, very long time.

Sexual Obsession to the Right of Me

Written by Joel Ombrey and published in 4/20/2022

What’s With the Sexual Obsessions of the Far Right?

Tucker Carlson’s video is only the latest example

Source: Sharon McCutcheon on

For your consideration:

According to a recent poll, almost half of Republicans believe that Democrats are involved in child sex trafficking rings.

A new Tucker Carlson series called “The End of Men” discusses declining testosterone levels, testicle tanning, and the collapse of society followed by a rebirth led by “strong” and “resourceful” men. The video trailer for the series, released earlier this month, has gay and straight alike saying “that’s really gay.”

In other reporting, Carlson claims that COVID-19 vaccines “feminize” people and “emasculated” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and “weakened him as a man.”

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon talks admiringly of Mussolini’s “virility” and “fashion sense.”

“He has all that virility,” Steve Bannon told The Spectator of London. “He also had amazing fashion sense, right, that…

Former President Trump frequently uses rhetoric drenched in masculine connotations of strength, insult, and refusal to back down. Numerous articles have been written about his and the GOP’s “toxic masculinity.”

Certain parts of the far-right seem obsessed with sexuality. They sometimes frame political issues in gendered terms that puzzle political analysts and seem subtly (and in the case of Carlson’s video not so subtly) homoerotic. This obsession manifests itself in policy in various ways, among them, the wave of anti-LGBTQ laws working through GOP-led state legislatures ranging from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law to anti-trans athlete bills in 10 states.

What the heck is going on?

Sexuality and sexual scandal have always been features of American politics. Since the founding, rumors and, at times, open secrets of infidelity, abound. However, from Thomas Jefferson’s fathering children with his slave Sally Hemmings, to JFK’s affairs, to Bill Clinton’s involvement with Monica Lewinski, most sexual scandals in our political history have been of a certain kind — heterosexual infidelity or sexual harassment between powerful men and women who are mostly in the shadows. It’s also been what I would call situational and specific — a male politician’s problematic sexual behavior becomes public and he weathers the political storm (e.g. Newt Gingrich) or doesn’t (e.g. Al Franken).

What seems to have changed in the last decade or so is that accusations of sexual impropriety have become more bizarre and more ongoing and generalized. It’s not just vanilla, man-woman infidelity, it’s more taboo; because infidelity is not enough to generate outrage anymore. The outrage comes from accusations of sexual predation on vulnerable children. And it’s not just Congressman John Q. Democrat, it’s all prominent Democrats. It’s not just a specific event, it’s ongoing.

So why is this happening?

Like most social and political behavior, the answer is probably a blend of multiple factors.

Political utility. Like any strategy in politics, it’s used if it works. And by works, I mean either it enhances loyalty in the base of supporters, or it demonizes the opposition, preferably both. Issues related to morality and children are powerful emotional motivators. And people make decisions (like voting) based on emotions even more so than intellect.

Social discomfort. Perhaps it’s a response to rapidly changing cultural norms on sexual issues. For example, public opinion on issues like gay marriage has changed dramatically in just two decades with a solid majority now supporting it. For some, this may be too much change, too fast.

Psychological undercurrents of right-wing ideology. This is where it gets trickier. It’s easy to play armchair psychologist and speculate on various theories about repressed sexual tensions, misogynistic tendencies, and/or patriarchal feelings within far-right thinking. However, I defer to more informed sources like the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and other experts. They report on a confluence of ancient anti-Semitic conspiracies involving children being kidnapped for blood rituals, modern-day QAnon conspiracies, and fundamentalist Christian thinking that likely pines for a return to traditional gender roles in defense of the family.

“…the alt-right has enlisted children in its full-spectrum defense of the traditional family. Gender-restrictive groups prey on our collective desire to protect children…By presenting themselves as ‘concerned adults’ with children’s wellbeing and safety, they appeal to a more moderate, nonreligious audience. This ‘defense of the family’ often conflates pedophilia with homosexuality.”

What’s tragic in the Right’s attempt to use pedophilia as a cover for attacks on the LGBTQ community is that it detracts from serious efforts to combat the real issue of sex trafficking of minors. It would seem like a natural fit and help Republicans gain credibility if they made high-profile efforts to combat the real issue. I don’t see it. IPS doesn’t either and suggests a compelling reason why:

“Because that would require an examination of some very embarrassing cases within its own ranks. Take the example of far-right Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, currently under investigation by the Justice Department for sex trafficking and having sex with a minor. Ralph Shortey, the chair of Trump’s Oklahoma campaign, is serving 15 years in prison for child sex trafficking. Would-be Senator Roy Moore, would-be congressman Ben Gibson, former Speaker of the House Denis Hastert, Trump Commerce Department official Adam Hageman, Republican digital strategist Ruben Verastigui, and so on: all have stood accused of pedophilia and/or child pornography.

Key takeaways

So it appears that the obsession with sexuality by some on the far-right is a witch’s brew of long-standing cultural conspiracies, religious fundamentalism, and political expediency. Based on this it seems reasonable to conclude:

  • These beliefs are deeply held, in the Republican mainstream (see the poll mentioned above) and absolutely crazy. And because of the first two issues, the last one doesn’t matter as much as you think it would when it comes to elections. It will be interesting, and potentially horrifying, to see how many GOP candidates use the anti-LGBT/pedophilia strategy in the 2022 midterms and win.
  • We must remain vigilant in our defense not only of truth, but also our advocacy for institutions that protect the rights of those under attack. This not only includes the LGBTQ community but extends to others. Since children’s welfare is the pretext for Republican efforts to suppress LGBTQ legitimacy as a political strategy, organizations that affect children’s education are now under pressure. School boards have received a lot of attention in recent months but public library boards are also in the crosshairs.
  • Tucker Carlson is a damaging, corrosive influence on our society but has an underlying point. Men are experiencing challenging times. The rapidly changing cultural norms I mentioned earlier may be causing some disorientation for men. It’s a topic worthy of honest discussion. But he’s using it for the basest political and bigoted purposes. Like child sex trafficking, a serious issue is being overwhelmed by a blizzard of politically motivated conspiratorial claptrap.

International Criminal Court

The U.S. does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court

A statue of the blindfolded lady justice in front of the United States Supreme Court building as the sun rises in the distance symbolizing the dawning of a new era.

Michel Martin transcript from NPR April 16, 2022

Heard on All Things ConsideredLISTEN· 6:50

NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with John Bellinger III, a former legal adviser for the National Security Council, about the complicated relationship the U.S. has with the International Criminal Court.


Earlier this week, President Biden used the word genocide to describe atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine. The president had also previously called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and said evidence should be gathered to put Putin on trial. Now, you might be asking, how or where does such a trial take place? There is a legal body specifically set up to prosecute cases of genocide, war crimes and other serious international crimes. It’s the International Criminal Court, or ICC.

But here’s the rub. The U.S. does not recognize the jurisdiction of this legal body. We wanted to learn more about why the U.S. does not and, despite that, if there is a role the U.S. could play in investigating Russian actions in Ukraine. For this, we called John Bellinger III. He was a legal adviser for the National Security Council and the State Department during the administration of George W Bush. And he is with us now. John Bellinger, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN BELLINGER III: Nice to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So the International Criminal Court was established in 1998 by an international agreement called the Rome Statute. And although the U.S. helped negotiate that accord, it ultimately did not formally join the ICC. As briefly as you can, why not?

BELLINGER: Well, that’s right, Michel. The U.S. has had a real roller coaster relationship with the ICC from the beginning with, unfortunately, more downs than ups. The real answer to your question is that the U.S. has been concerned from the very beginning that the prosecutor for the court would be given too much power unchecked, and he or she could conduct politically-motivated prosecutions of U.S. soldiers.

And the U.S. actually had long supported the concept of an international criminal court. Congress had actually voted resolutions back in the 1990s calling for the creation of an international criminal court based on the Nuremberg tribunals after World War II. But as you said, when the Clinton administration participated in the negotiations of the treaty, the Rome Statute that created this International Criminal Court, the U.S. was not comfortable with the outcome and ended up being one of only seven countries in the world that voted against the treaty.

MARTIN: I do want to point out that Russia also does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, but the ICC has already opened investigations into possible war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. Can the U.S. help with these investigations, despite not being a member of the court itself?

BELLINGER: Well, it certainly can, and it should, in my view. There are some legal problems because when the court opened in 2002, Congress passed, on a bipartisan basis, a very draconian piece of legislation called the American Service Members Protection Act that strictly limits the U.S. ability to cooperate with the court, with some exceptions. So the Biden administration would have to work its way through these legal restrictions, which would, I think, ultimately allow some support to the court. The bigger problem, really, is how is it that the U.S., which has traditionally had some concerns about the court, now support the court’s investigation of Russia? There’s an answer to that, which is that the United States is not concerned about everything that the ICC does.

In fact, when I was legal adviser for the State Department in the second term of the Bush administration, we supported the court’s investigation of the genocide in Sudan. So as long as the court is doing what it was created to do, which is to investigate international crimes that have not been investigated by the country that committed them, then we should be helping it. Of course, if they start investigating politically motivated cases of us or others, then we can oppose that. But…

MARTIN: But wait. Wait. Hold on. What’s the distinction there? Is the distinction – for example, the U.S. condemned a previous ICC investigation into U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Is the defining issue here whether the government responsible for the actions in question has the capacity or the willingness or any history of investigating itself? Is that the dividing line there?

BELLINGER: So if the United States does end up supporting the ICC’s investigation of Russia, which I hope and ultimately think that the Biden administration will, we will certainly open ourself up to some charges of hypocrisy because of these traditional concerns that the U.S. has had about the ICC’s investigation of the United States. But there is a difference.

I think what we need to do is apply the terms of the treaty itself. The International Criminal Court exists only to assert jurisdiction when a country hasn’t investigated its own nationals for the most serious of offenses, and Russia hasn’t done that. In the case of Afghanistan, though, the United States had investigated most of those offenses. You can argue about whether the investigations were full enough, but there’s a big difference between the investigations that were conducted by the United States at the same time that Russia is claiming that it has done absolutely nothing wrong in Ukraine.

MARTIN: Critics say that this is already hurting U.S. moral authority by not being a member. So do you feel comfortable telling me your opinion about this? I mean, do you think the U.S. should be a member?

BELLINGER: The U.S. should be a member. But sadly, that ship sailed back in 1998 when the negotiators, over U.S. objections during the Clinton administration, negotiated a treaty that did not address U.S. concerns. So yes, it’s painful for me as an American, as a lawyer, as the former legal adviser for the State Department, representing a country that has long been at the forefront of international criminal justice. It is unfortunate that the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court. We should be. But for the time being, I think U.S. policy will have to continue to be, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, is to support the court when it is doing what it was set up to do, which, in this case, the investigations of the Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine is exactly what the court was set up to do.

MARTIN: That was John Bellinger III. He is a former legal adviser to the National Security Council and the State Department during the administration of George W Bush. Mr. Bellinger, thanks so much for talking with us and sharing this expertise.

BELLINGER: Thanks, Michel. Great to be with you.

Political thoughts

Sharing Our Thoughts about Politics

Written by Carolyn Bertolino and published in 4/15/2022

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

After public pressure and the Facebook whistleblower coming forward last year, social media has come under scrutiny for the massive amount of disinformation shared on the platform. That’s good, but I think it’s also important to help Americans determine reliable sources of information.

The culture wars are heating up in anticipation of this fall’s midterm elections. As usual, Republicans are a couple steps ahead of Democrats on “messaging”, having successfully convinced an alarming number of regular Americans that reading a book about two moms or dads is equivalent to teaching them about sex. They don’t really think first graders are being taught about sex, it’s just an attempt to distract from beneficial Democratic legislation like the Infrastructure Law and the Affordable Insulin Now Act.

Even so, I’m optimistic about the future. Trump and his henchmen are out of the White House and laws are being passed to do things like fix dangerous bridges, mitigate climate change, and quit forcing poor children to drink water containing lead.

Still, it’s discouraging to see so many people buying into harmful misinformation. COVID was an eye-opener in terms of how dangerous fake news can be. It was truly frightening to see so many people die because they believed a lie and refused the free, safe, life-saving vaccine. We also saw the Big Lie about the election culminate on January 6, 2021, with the violent attempted overthrow of our country.

The battle against disinformation is beginning to show some small, encouraging results. Cable news, the most biased source of political commentary, has been seeing a steep decline in its viewership. That phenomenon is in fact borne out by a recent study. When Fox viewers were paid to watch CNN instead, they were less likely to believe fake news, and the results began in as little as three days.

It’s usually pretty easy to verify things, but a lot of people don’t know that. Sometimes those of us who are skilled at and used to seeking out reliable sources forget that a lot of people have never really learned how to do it. This can lead to major breakdowns in communication. If we want to reduce the decisiveness, we need to work toward a standard fact-checking skills curriculum in public schools. We also need to learn how to help our friends, families, and acquaintances stop falling victim to misinformation machines like QAnon, Fox, and Newsmax.

I used to be really judgmental of people who believe conspiracy theories. Then I started reminding myself that some of them are smarter than me in other ways, and most people aren’t out to harm anyone. With those things in mind, it got easier to find common ground and help them question those phony sites and shows for themselves. When that happens, it’s easier for people to form their own opinions based on facts rather than rhetoric or even lies.

It doesn’t even cross a lot of people’s minds to cross-check their sources, to make sure they’re not receiving self-serving information from that source. An example would be a website run by the fossil fuel industry claiming to deliver official information about climate change. Once you find out that page was written by the very industry that profits from people’s misunderstanding, then you can check with NASA or NOAA, actual scientific agencies who specialize in that field, to get the facts.

It’s also beneficial to learn how to use government websites to verify statistics, budget facts, and how congresspeople voted. Of course, you’ll probably run into people who say they don’t believe anything from any governmental agency, but that’s a different topic. Most people will be receptive to something like “Well, we can check the actual bill or law by going to or” If you want to know the truth about the deficit or budget, go to It may sound obvious to go to those websites, but it never occurs to people who’ve either forgotten or never been taught.

An early example that comes to my mind was the Affordable Care Act debate. That’s when I first noticed people from my hometown become armchair political pundits after not having cared about politics before. If you wanted to know the tax penalty for not having health insurance, you could do a Google search for “Obamacare penalty”. Then when you looked through the results for websites ending in .gov, you would have come across the one highlighted here. It’s still there today, with updated information to show that the penalty has been discontinued. If you want to know the facts about what’s in a bill or law, the website ending in .gov is the one to choose from your Google search.

A lot of people were convinced that they were going to have to pay a penalty if they didn’t have health insurance. They simply didn’t know that the fine had all kinds of exceptions to keep from penalizing regular people. Hardly anyone had to pay those fines because most people making that much money already had health insurance through their job, and if they didn’t, not only did the fine have an income threshold, but was not applicable unless the available plan was less than a certain dollar amount compared to your income. Knowledge about how hard it is to find people who had to pay the penalty helps you make an informed opinion based on something other than the Fox lie about how many were actually affected.

And these are not stupid people. These were people I knew from my hometown, school, or previous jobs, as opposed to the social media connections I’ve only met online either from political groups or shared activity interests. Most of these connections originating from real life had passed the same classes, at least in high school, that I had, requiring research from credible sources. But back then the only sources we had to choose from were newspapers, magazines, and books.

They, like me, also got most of their formal education before 24- hour cable news and the internet. After technology took over, we no longer had to go to the library, and we also had more “news” stations to choose from than just the standard networks. I believe it was this 24-hour news cycle that got a lot of people interested in issues they didn’t really care about before. Unfortunately, that 24-hour news cycle has only one goal: to keep viewers engaged. And nothing is more universally engaging than controversy.

When I’m talking with people who want to develop good research skills, I tell them one good way to start is to go to websites that end in either “.gov” or “.org”. The first ending means it’s a government website that’s got reliability requirements overseen by a legally bound inspector general. Websites that end in “.org” are those of non-profit organizations. Granted, there are some questionable nonprofit organizations, but it’s a good starting place. If the organization isn’t something widely known such as or, additional things to look for in the site or article could include links to government agency websites or other well-known non-profits.

Another thing I recommend using the Associated Press and public, or non-cable, news sources. Those networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, still hold themselves to internal standards from the Fairness Doctrine they were subject to from 1949 until 1987. Cable news was never subject to any of that, which is why it’s important to check the sources of info from them. I always verify through one of the three networks or a government watchdog website.

People who get their news from questionable sources are grossly uninformed about the recently passed Infrastructure Law and the Build Back Better bills being planned by congressional Democrats and the president. Both bills are incredibly popular, but a lot of people still honestly don’t know that the infrastructure law doesn’t raise taxes at all, and the Build Back Better bills don’t propose any taxes on people making less than 400,000 per year. And what’s really sad is that so far at least one Republican who voted against the extremely popular Infrastructure Law is already claiming they voted for it. All anyone has to do to see if those congresspeople are lying about their support is to go to the congressional website. I got there by typing “how congress voted on infrastructure bill” in Google and then put “.gov” behind it.

Now Biden is talking about a special billionaire tax. Judging by current standards, there will be a lot of misinformation surrounding it, which is another good example of why it’s so important to steer people toward reliable sources. It might be a little harder for the conspiracy theorists and Republicans to drum up opposition to the billionaire tax, because Democrats are actually calling it what it is, as opposed to the inaccurately nicknamed Defund the Police. Hopefully they’ll remember the lesson they learned on that one.

I hope things have gotten better in the debate on how to help people avoid fake news since I attended a presentation about fake news at my local library. It was given by a panel including a representative of a local TV station, someone from our state public radio, and a journalism professor from our local university.

They kept saying the only way to hear any truth was to subscribe to a print newspaper. When I got the mic, I asked for ideas on how to educate kids on reliable internet sources, because they and their parents don’t buy newspapers. I told them that even as a middle-aged adult, I don’t subscribe to print newspapers, but I know how to verify info online by checking with reputable news sources like ABC, the Des Moines Register, or the congressional budget office website. They looked down their noses at me and literally told me that if I was unwilling to pay for a print newspaper, I was buying into fake news. I really hope they have since evolved. This was 2017, at the height of the Trump-era fake news heyday.

As much as these guys wanted to, they weren’t going to be able to bring back print newspapers any more than they can bring back the horse and buggy or coal power plants. And when they claim the only source or correct news is print newspapers, they’re doing society and democracy a real disservice. They were basically discouraging families and our education system from teaching kids how to find reliable sources.

Young people seem to be getting more educated in their fact-checking, on a lot of political issues, and I think part of the reason is because they’re living the consequences of cable news lies. They’re the ones who have to do active-shooter drills in school and then can’t afford their rent or to put themselves through school even while working full-time. I commend today’s young people for taking it upon themselves to stand up against the lies, and it gives me hope for the future. At the same time, I see it as an unfortunate sort of “chickens coming home to roost.”

Now the Democrats are passing laws that will help bring us closer to the prosperity our parents and grandparents enjoyed before cable news reared its ugly head. If we help our friends and neighbors reach their own conclusions based on facts rather than lies, we’ll be able to keep the freedoms we have and restore the ones we’ve lost.

The Trouble with the Supreme Court

Opinion: The Supreme Court is broken. So is the system that confirms its justices.

Written by Ruth Marcus and published in the Washington Post 4/7/2022

The confirmation process for Supreme Court nominees is broken, and so, I fear, is the Supreme Court itself. These developments, mutually reinforcing, were both on sad display this week.

Not long ago, whether to confirm a Supreme Court nominee was not a predictably party-line affair, with a handful or fewer of defectors. In 2005, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was confirmed with 78 votes, and Democratic senators split equally on the nomination, 22 in favor and 22 against. That lopsided tally — earlier confirmations were, for the most part, more lopsided — is now a quaint artifact of a less polarized era.

The Senate finds itself now on the verge of a dangerous new reality, in which a Senate controlled by the party opposing the president might simply refuse to confirm a nominee, period. A tradition of deference to presidential prerogatives — of believing that elections have consequences, as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) liked to say in one of his earlier incarnations — is over. If the Senate majority is big and unified enough, it will defy the president.

Just wait and see. Republican senators were willing to caricature Ketanji Brown Jackson’s record in search of any excuse to vote against her — even though her addition to the court won’t affect its ideological balance. Imagine what would happen if a Republican appointee were to leave the court during a Democratic presidency. Actually, no imagination needed. Consider what the Senate did — or didn’t do — when Merrick Garland was nominated in 2016 to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

We could endlessly debate how things degenerated to this point: Republicans point to the Bork hearings, the Thomas hearings, the Gorsuch filibuster and the Kavanaugh hearings; Democrats bemoan the Garland blockade and the hurried Barrett confirmation. Neither side has clean hands.

The result is a fiercely partisan process that demeans the Senate and politicizes the court, rendering it a creature of political will and power. At this stage, there is no incentive for either party to back down from this maximalism. Time was (starting with Robert H. Bork), the Senate debated whether a nominee was in or outside the judicial mainstream. That assessment was in the eye of the beholder, of course, but at least it was a nod at deliberation.

That is so 1987. Judicial philosophy is now aligned with political party as never before in the court’s history. So it is no surprise to witness the same phenomenon — the raw exercise of power overtaking normal processes — unfolding on the court itself. Norms are shredded in both branches.

One vivid manifestation involves the conservative majority’s use of the emergency docket — what’s called, in more sinister-sounding terms, the shadow docket.

The court’s work is supposed to be conducted after full written briefing and oral argument and justified by written opinions. It has rules, or is supposed to, about when to intervene to referee disputes before they get to that stage, and, of course, that needs to happen sometimes. But increasingly, the court is using its emergency powers to step into disputes on the side that the majority favors — outside of the normal procedures and without written explanation.

Why? Because it can.

Thus, the week of Jackson’s confirmation saw five conservative justices — over the dissent of three liberals and the chief justice — intervening in a case still pending before a federal appeals court.

Five conservative justices voted to reinstate a Trump-era clean-water rule that restricted states’ ability to block potentially polluting projects. The three remaining liberal justices — joined, notably, by Chief Justice Roberts — dissented, complaining that the court was misusing its emergency powers by reviving the rule without the proof that was necessary to avoid “irreparable harm,” as the court’s precedents require.

“That renders the Court’s emergency docket not for emergencies at all,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan. This might sound mild, but process matters at the Supreme Court, and while Roberts had voted with the liberals before in such cases, this was the first time he had joined a dissent criticizing the misuse of the shadow docket.

Maybe the district court judge in the case made a mistake by going further than the Biden administration had asked in vacating the Trump-era regulation, not simply returning the matter to the Environmental Protection Agency while it worked on a new version of the rule.

That’s not the point. The point is that courts have rules about when to grant emergency relief — and the test isn’t just whether the lower court got it wrong. An appeals court is reviewing the district judge’s decision and, applying those rules, declined to stop it from taking effect. As Kagan explained in her dissent, “This Court may stay a decision under review in a court of appeals ‘only in extraordinary circumstances’ and ‘upon the weightiest considerations.’ ”

No emergency justified the Supreme Court interfering here. It just had the votes to act anyway.

When norms give way to partisanship and ideology, when applying impartial rules yields to obtaining results by any means, institutional legitimacy erodes. The immediate gain is understandably tempting. The institutional damage might not be immediately evident, but it is as undeniable as it will be difficult to repair.