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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of July 9, 2021, in 9.5 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① The GOP's anti-vax drive and valorization of the 1/6 insurrectionists have roots in the mass right-wing resistance to Obamacare

② They paid no political price for those terrible antics—indeed were rewarded for them—because Republicans were allowed to turn the page 

③ But what if this time Dems stopped hiding from culture-war politics and actually engaged them? Here's what that might look like...

④ High-minded people tend to imagine that governing well with popular policies is the optimal politics; but there's little reason to assume that's true

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WHISTLESTOP SABOTEUR

A quick check-in with our friends on the right finds them in a pretty dark place. If you follow their machinations through mainstream sources, you’ll mostly hear about how they’re driving a propaganda blitz participating in a “partisan war” against “critical race theory”—a war that came into existence through some mysterious alchemy, it would seem. But if you really know where to look (e.g. on their own media channels, or by listening to Donald Trump) you’ll find that they’re more concretely focused on two key goals: discouraging vaccine uptake, and valorizing the January 6 insurrectionists—even to the point of seeking retribution against the police who defended the Capitol.

I got a fair amount of pushback when I first observed back in December that the right would try to sabotage recovery from the plague under a Democratic president. Even today, even after so many Republicans undermined COVID-19 restrictions and spread disinformation to protect Donald Trump from the consequences of his own failures, it’s hard even for many liberals to accept that leaders of a major U.S. political faction would lay waste to innocent life for short-term partisan gain. 

But if you followed right-wing politics even glancingly for the past decade, the anti-vax turn became a foregone conclusion shortly after the election, once conservative elites began accepting that Donald Trump would no longer be president. That they’d try to recast the insurrectionists as heroes should come as no surprise either. 

There’s way too much history of attempted sabotage during the Obama years to recount all of it, but the best analogs to the current moment aren’t actually the most famous, and both stem from the campaign of mass resistance to the passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. 

① A DECADE IN THE BREAKING

In 2010, as congressional Democrats prepared to take their final votes on the ACA, Tea Party protesters stormed Capitol Hill in a last-ditch effort to “kill the bill."

This wasn’t an insurrection insofar as they didn’t actually invade the Capitol itself to physically restrain members of Congress. But it wasn’t a canonical peaceful protest either. They occupied the Capitol grounds and corridors of the congressional office buildings where they confronted lawmakers including then-Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), whom they called a “faggot,” and Reps. Andre Carson (D-IN) and John Lewis (D-GA), whom they berated with the N-word, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), whom they spat on. I witnessed some of this myself, different reporters witnessed the other altercations, and of course the members themselves confirmed it all on the record. But because it became a political problem for the right, the conservative propaganda machine whirred to life to valorize the racists and defame the witnesses; to insist these confrontations never happened, and cow mainstream outlets into covering matters of fact as questions of controversy.

Three years later, just before the ACA’s core benefits were set to roll out, conservative activists sought to destabilize the law’s marketplaces by encouraging young people to forego health insurance altogether, to accept enormous personal risks for the good of the larger goal of damaging the Obama presidency and discrediting government for the common good. 

It’s no surprise a decade on that some of the same entities—in many cases the same people—are leading the right-wing anti-vax campaign, and recasting the insurrectionist Ashlii Babbitt as a martyr. But it's only imaginable, only something they see as in their interests, because they paid no political penalty for similar, milder outrages last time around.

② THE SPOILS OF CULTURE WAR

To the contrary, Republicans were rewarded with huge victories after each of these episodes. The 2010 and 2014 midterms weren’t even contested on the grounds that Republicans had encouraged a bigoted assault on Democratic officials, or gambled recklessly with the lives of millions of young Americans.

This frustrating history came flooding back to mind on Wednesday when I saw this graph of the 2014 generic congressional ballot.

My read tracking left to right is that Dems entered the 2014 cycle with a head of steam from President Obama’s re-election; their advantage narrowed over the first half of 2013; exploded when Republicans shut down the government; reverted to the mean when the shutdown ended (exacerbated a bit by the failed launch of healthcare.gov); then basically nothing happened for a year until the month before the election when Republicans (led even then by Donald Trump) began a propaganda campaign to convince Americans that Obama would allow ISIS to bring Ebola into America across the southern border. They rode that lie to victory in the Senate, through the theft of the Scalia Supreme Court seat, and straight into the maw of Trump’s America. All the ups and downs of policy for two years, completely swamped by a late surge of culture-war nonsense.

Given that history, it’s no surprise that Republicans think they’re unlikely to face a penalty for their ghastly behavior today. It's why a dozen GOP-run states prematurely terminated pandemic unemployment benefits. It’s why Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) said Republicans hope for “18 more months of chaos and the inability to get stuff done," so they can win control of Congress in the midterms, then followed that up with this understated suggestion that Republicans view prolonging the pandemic as a legitimate means of undermining the Biden recovery for political gain. It’s why Trump has joined a campaign to out the Capitol officer who shot Ashlii Babbitt and place a target on his back. They do not expect the election to be about this stuff; they expect that Democrats will try to make it about policy, and that they’ll be able to swamp policy appeals with critical race theory or whatever the culture-war flavor of the month happens to be next October. 

But what if they did pay a penalty?

③ TROLL WITH THE PUNCHES

I’d wager that the January 6 insurrection polls terribly basically everywhere and that discouraging young people from getting their COVID-19 shots is only popular in the fringiest of communities. 

For Republicans to suffer politically for embracing these things, though, Democrats have to make them. To treat these liabilities less as side shows than as the actual thematic center of the election. To stop hiding from the culture wars and actually win them.

It would take a little creative thinking, and a modest tolerance for getting down in the mud; but the goal should be to make Republicans pay a price for venturing down the road to cultishness and political violence directly, rather than through a parallel referendum on health care or the minimum wage.

  • President Biden could award the cop who was left no choice but to shoot Ashlii Babbitt the medal of freedom. He could even invite Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell to the ceremony. (The right will out this officer sooner or later, but Biden could nevertheless bestow the award in absentia and anonymously. “This hero unfortunately can’t be here, as a deranged, un-American element has credibly threatened violence, but we can’t let the brave conduct we witnessed go uncelebrated blah blah blah.”)
     
  • Democrats could find similar ways to honor the nurses and other care providers going door to door to get people vaccinated, giving faces to the public servants whom Marjorie Taylor Greene compared to Nazis and Chip Roy threatened to kill
     
  • Not to let the CRT stuff slide, well...

I’ll be the first to admit this isn't the most elevated stuff in the world; there are a lot of smart people in Democratic politics and most of them don’t want to spend their days contemplating how to outmaneuver Republicans in the realm of brutish messaging. But there’s no less honor in that than in clinging to the belief that politics is an elevated calling, only to lose elections when Republicans decide to make them about outlandish, in many cases fictional things. 

④ A TOO CONVENIENT TRUTH

When I started in this business in the mid-aughts, blogs were all the rage, and the liberal blogosphere flourished on the premise that the ultimate purpose of politics should be to improve people’s lives through the enactment and implementation of good policy. That insight was correct and decent, and holds true all these many years later. It’s why Biden’s infrastructure agenda matters! But some of the same wonky minds ultimately convinced themselves that the inverse is also true; that the hidden upshot of good policy is that it makes for great politics. 

This should have struck these very smart people as suspiciously convenient. If it were true as a rule, we might expect that the passage of the American Rescue Plan, one of the most popular and consequential kitchen-table policies in history, had made Democrats politically bulletproof. In reality, it had no discernible impact on Biden's popularity whatsoever.

And if you think about it for more than just a second, you realize it’d be a huge coincidence if both of these things happened to be right. The end goal of politics could after all be many things: the common good, liberty, group dominance, scientific innovation. The wonkosphere formed around one I agree with: the common good. But the other question—what’s the ideal politics for building power to advance political end goals?—is separate, and you could answer in many ways: divide and conquer, conciliation, pandering to the fevered imaginations of swing voters, technocratic excellence in pursuit of the common good. The wonks quite conspicuously decided that their calling in life also happened to be self-actualizing. It’s not impossible to imagine that being the case, but it is improbable. The kind of tidy theory one arrives at through motivated reasoning: both the means and the ends of politics happen to be the same things that bring me professional and intellectual satisfaction.

In the face of this belief, election after election has come and gone, and few if any have turned on the substantive policies that came into existence over the preceding two years, or that the candidates in those elections promised to support going forward. More often they turned on whose passions had been stirred the most. So ask yourself, which is the more galvanizing appeal: 1. The other side (sotto voce: which stole the last election and murdered the hero who could have stopped them) seeks to control your lives, and the life of the American mind, or 2. We passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill with those people!

Unless Dems swap out option 2 for something a little more responsive to the passions of the moment, I think I know the answer. The election won’t be about both of these things. One or the other will take hold. And what’s at stake is whether a major U.S. political party can turn their countrymen into cannon fodder for a deadly virus, embrace an attempted coup...and win.

The CNN segment embedded here is great and illustrates the political power of cultural appeals, even fabricated ones, very vividly. 

Donald Trump sued Twitter, Facebook, and Google as a fundraising scam, but if it somehow goes forward, he’ll actually have sprung a perjury trap on himself, so let’s all express to Zuck and Jack just how important it is for them not to get the suit dismissed. 

I talked to Molly Jong-Fast about paying Americans for voting, which was the subject of last week’s newsletter.

Joe Biden has taken important new steps to give workers more rights against concentrated economic power and his Department of Education has hired a leading student-loan forgiveness advocate and expert as general counsel.

And it couldn’t come at a better time!

Ok, good point

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