Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of January 27, 2023, in 10 minutes.


① There's a theory, popular among liberals, that most of politics is downstream from economics, where rising tides lifting all boats should also leave reactionaries treading water—yet America is booming and reactionaries are as emboldened as ever

② The center-left's response to this unfortunate reality is to appeal to MAGA voters with manufacturing jobs and culture-war concessions and hope for the best

③ But the best way to deradicalize the GOP isn't indirectly by softening up its voters with better industrial policy; it's directly, by making the party's extremism and corruption a first order liability for all of its candidates

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By certain measures, we’re living through a brighter morning in America than the younger half of the population has ever experienced. Not by all measures. There’s always a great deal of ruin in a nation, and ours is currently experiencing a decrease in life expectancy, excess death from a new endemic disease, the reversal of progress toward social equality on certain fronts, and very expensive eggs. 

In that same nation, though, unemployment has never been lower. The inflation crisis you heard so much about wasn’t imaginary, but it was more than offset for most workers by higher wages, and in any case, it appears to have ended months ago. A greater percentage of Americans have health insurance than ever before. And the economy is poised for huge investments in domestic manufacturing, infrastructure, and clean energy. 

Plug it all into some of the tidier theories of American politics, and you’d expect us to be living through an era of calm and good feeling, a fallow season for demagogues who fan mass grievances for personal enrichment and political gain.   

And yet... 


Right-wing madness doesn’t seem to have receded, at least as a temptation for GOP politicians.

  • Florida teachers have been told to remove or conceal all books from their classroom libraries or face felony charges from Ron DeSantis’s government.
  • Given free rein on Twitter and facing little pushback from any institution, right-wing charlatans have persuaded tens of millions of Americans that people who’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 are dropping dead spontaneously all over the world.
  • Donald Trump waited out the only sanctions he faced for attempting to overthrow the government—the temporary suspension of some of his social media accounts—despite embracing more and more brazen election lies, and (to take one instance) continuing to call for the lawless imprisonment of journalists.
  • House Republicans insist they’ll create mass suffering by forcing the country to default on its debt, if their unilateral but as-yet unspecified conditions aren’t met.
  • Republican states are awash in new laws and legislation meant to stigmatize trans people and criminalize abortion.

It’s morning in America, and yet the most reactionary actors in public life are sundering the social fabric and traducing fundamental liberties as gleefully as ever. Why hasn’t the best economy in decades had the downstream effect of reducing the appeal of this kind of politics?

Here I’ll add some shades of gray to the story. It could be that we’re witnessing a kind of zombie authoritarianism. A political style Republican elites can’t seem to abandon despite its political weaknesses. The most demagogic Republicans fared worse than any other candidates in the midterms, and perhaps the party’s decision to redouble its commitment to MAGA politics will doom it in 2024.

But I don’t think it’s credible to argue that the strong economy pulled us back from the abyss in November and that right-wing backlash has begun to ebb.

The reality of our strong economy has not defined perceptions of it, which have tended to resemble doom-laced political reporting and outright propaganda, rather than raw data gathered by government agencies and other researchers. A huge percentage of Americans believes that the country is in the midst of a recession. Inflation remained a major, stated concern for voters long after prices had stabilized. And even if perceptions don’t matter as much as reality, it doesn’t explain why the incumbent party’s performance was so lumpy. Why didn’t Democrats outperform fundamentals everywhere? Why did the election instead net out to something like a tie, where Democrats lost badly in some places, but offset those losses by trouncing MAGA tickets elsewhere?

A better synthesis of these facts is that false perceptions of the economy took a heavy toll on Democrats, but in places where democracy and truth were most clearly on the ballot, enough voters set their misgivings about the economy aside to reject crooks and liars.


If that’s true, it stands to reason that the best way to beat crooks and liars is head on, rather than via the indirect effects of good economic stewardship and triangulation toward the median voter.

That reasoning hasn’t won the day in center-left politics. I’m not even sure it’s made a dent. The prevailing orthodoxy continues to hold that the best way to head off a MAGA takeover runs through the pocketbooks of Republican voters, or by conceding to their cultural grievances. 

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent detailed this week, the Biden administration’s manufacturing and clean-energy agenda will redound disproportionately to the economic benefit of red America. Earlier this year, a senior Biden administration official told The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein, “I don’t know whether the angry white people in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin are less angry if we get them 120,000 more manufacturing jobs. But we are going to run that experiment.” 

This isn’t to begrudge those Americans the jobs coming their way, or criticize the policies that created them, but to say we shouldn’t view those jobs principally as a salve to deradicalize the Republican base, and if deradicalization is an urgent priority, we should be addressing it along multiple fronts. Devising economic policy with democracy protection in mind would be a bit like reforming health-care policy as a party-building exercise—convoluted and ineffective. (As it turns out, giving millions of economically insecure white Americans free or affordable health insurance didn't turn them into loyal Democrats—it was still the right thing to do).  

We’ve run versions of the same experiment several times, and so far no version of conciliation with an unchastened GOP has worked, but hope apparently springs eternal. In just the past couple weeks, we’ve seen senior Democrats concede to bad-faith GOP spin about Joe Biden’s vice presidential records. We’ve seen Joe Manchin suggest maybe Republicans should be rewarded with concessions for taking the debt limit hostage. We’ve seen Dick Durbin plead with Republicans to be nice to Democrats the way Democrats are nice to Republicans.

The analyst Ruy Teixeira, who until recently embraced the idea that Democratic Party fortunes lay in Joe Biden’s stewardship of the economy, now concedes that boom times may not be enough to defeat Republicans. But his backup plan is for Democrats to (somehow or other?) relent to the prevailing red-America views on culture-war issues like crime, immigration, and race. That is, to increase the salience of the very themes Republicans want elections to be about.


What if elections were instead about the things that most disgust voters about Republicans? The things that just cost Republicans so dearly in Arizona and Michigan and Pennsylvania and elsewhere? What if the best way to defeat the fascist threat isn't with a bottom-up approach of deradicalization-through-industrial-policy, but a top-down approach of exposing and revolting against the GOP's corrupt, medieval politics? Or at least, why not try both?

Teixeira stipulates (but only stipulates) that this won’t work because 2022 was a matter of pure luck for Democrats. “Trumpian influence is diminishing inside the GOP but other," he claims, "less flawed messengers lie in wait to pick up the populist banner." It’s a strange thing to stipulate in a world where polls show Trump trouncing all Republican primary challengers, the strongest of which hopes to beat him by scaring up an army of antivax conspiracy theorists. And it presumes that if Republicans can simply get their diction under control, Democrats will lose all say over how the public views them. 

In a world where concerted messaging can persuade most people that a good economy is actually bad, and where issue salience is often a function of passing propaganda campaigns and media fixations, it's also strange to assume that Republican-coded cultural issues are the only ones that might preoccupy voters ahead of an election. Especially after 2022. I think we have enough experience by now to understand what MAGA really is, and how to make Republican politicians regret clothing themselves in it. 

Back in 2015 and 2016 the centrist political establishment (along with some influential left- and right-wing figures) were at pains to explain the effect Donald Trump had on his rallygoers—the way they'd thrill to his attacks on Mexicans and Muslims and others—as an artifact of their "economic anxiety." Journalists needed a way to explain what everyone was seeing without appearing biased against Republicans. Conservatives wanted to paper over the pathologies of the GOP base for brand-management purposes. Progressives wanted to go to bat for the salutary effects of egalitarian economic policy.

I had this gag at the time that admittedly got a bit out of hand, where a Trump supporter, rich or poor, would do something capital-D Deplorable on camera, and I'd say he was simply anxious about wage competition from low-skilled immigrants or whatever. Point is, it was clear even then that the appeal was the fascism itself, and MAGA passions couldn't be channeled to healthier places through better technocratic management alone. The darkly funny thing about the current White House describing Biden’s economic policy as a test of whether Democrats can beat fascism with jobs is that it brings us full circle, even though all these years later, no one credibly chalks the Trump phenomenon up to economic anxiety. You can feel in the "I don't know" and the acknowledgement that these voters are "angry" rather than "anxious" that their heart isn't in "manufacturing jobs" as the solution.

That doesn't mean these jobs are politically null. Biden has a really good story to tell the whole nation about his economic record, it’s genuinely one of the most remarkable political feats I’ve ever covered, and a huge political asset, particularly relative to an alternative where he presided over a recession or sluggish growth. But it hasn’t eroded Republican strength with key voting demographics, because those voters don’t dislike Democrats for principally economic reasons. They prefer Republicans because they are swamped with right-wing rhetoric and ideas and lies that they find appealing or presume to be true, and the best way to disrupt that dynamic is to alter the informational stew with new ingredients.

The principal reason to build a more egalitarian polity is that you think it’s important for people to lead fulfilling and secure lives. The principal reason to build a more egalitarian polity is not to make those same people better citizens. If you want people to embrace the promise of liberal democracy, you have to persuade them of its inherent virtues, not fatten their wallets and hope they can be made to believe the extra cash came from liberalism. If you want voters to abandon politicians who are corrupt, dishonest, menacing, you have to convince them that their corruption and dishonesty and menace outweighs anything else about them that might seem appealing. You have to put real effort into making their fundamental faithlessness a liability for them. And we know voters will respond to that effort, because they just did.

For the 50th anniversary of Roe v Wade (RIP), I spoke to Renee Bracey Sherman about how the fight for and against reproductive rights has changed since Dobbs, and what more we should expect out of liberal political leaders, if we’re to restore the national right to abortion in a timely fashion.

RE fighting Republican ugliness head on.

Shocking stuff, and Merrick Garland just let him keep at it for two years. And to connect it to the theme of this week’s newsletter, these are the kinds of scandalous leads that could expose all kinds of GOP corruption, and even previously unknown Trump criminality if, for instance, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin was willing to dig into it.

Seems bad

Good question.

The Ruben Gallego campaign seems like it’s gonna be pretty fun.

The long and short of it.

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