Breaking News

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook poo-bah and internet gazllionaire, famously captured the ethos of Silicone Valley with his motto, “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” Uh-huh. We adults also have a motto: “Speed kills whippersnapper, so slow down before you put someone’s eye out.”

Unfortunately, no one listens to the grownups until it’s too late. It’s all fun, games, and IPOs until you undermine democracy, tug on the loose thread of the social fabric and leave the republic’s keister flapping in the breeze. Yes, we’re all very impressed with the technorati’s ability to disrupt, destroy and devastate. But who gets stuck cleaning up the mess? Clearly not the testosterone-addled anoraks gleefully coding away the status quo.

Us crotchety middle-aged types are starting to get a serious case of the grumps over the immature irresponsibility of big tech. Sure, we appreciate some of this stuff as much as the next person. As anyone who spent most of their adult life in the pre-Twitter/Instagram/Tinder era can attest, lots of things were harder back then. If you wanted to share breakfast snaps you had to take actual photographs of your Cornflakes, get them developed, and rustle up a stack of envelopes and stamps. Unsurprisingly, the effort involved meant most people in your Rolodex (look it up) had to go through life lacking visual evidence of your commitment to processed cereal and high fructose corn syrup. You couldn’t send cat videos, either. You had to send actual cats. There were no emojis, you had to articulate your feelings with words and grammar and everything. If you wanted casual sex, you had to go into a bar and make an effort. Even worse, it almost never resulted in any actual whoopee. Beer was involved, though, so it wasn’t all bad.

Sarcasm aside, there’s no doubt our newly wired globe-o-sphere clearly has massive benefits and I do genuinely appreciate them (seriously, you should see my Amazon bills). My point is that it is increasingly clear there are also costs and downsides to this brave new virtual world we’ve been hurtled into. Equally clear is that the same people who created all this at breakneck speed never really thought through the consequences.

Consider what’s going on in journalism. Essentially, the internet is killing newspapers. At first, the information-yearns-to-be-free evangelists of tech-topia told us no worries, everyone would soon be a journalist, every voice would be heard, and all truths uncovered. Considerably less was said about empowering trolls and conspiracy wackos, or that the fall of the gatekeepers would herald the rise of weaponized media platforms capable of virally infecting fact with doubt and propagating bile as verity. It was all just move fast and break things.

Consider them broken. The business model of newspapers has effectively been blown up. Between 2000 and 2015 two-thirds of advertising revenue at newspapers disappeared, most of it gravitating to the likes of Google, who kick back crumbs to the suckers who provide content for nothing.   A number of major metropolitan dailies have either shrunk to online shells of their former selves (The Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer) or just disappeared entirely (The Cincinnati Post, The Tampa Tribune). The net set makes oodles of dough off the content generated by what’s left of news organizations, and if the traditional press fades into oblivion, no worries. After all, the clickbait links to nutjobpress.com and wemakestuffup.net still work.

Substituting local news organizations with the fluff and fluster of the web is a terrible trade off. Axe grinders and agitators are not going to sit through zoning commission meetings to insure developers are playing on the up and up, any more than the yell and sell crowd is going to confirm sources and adopt the search for truth as a professional norm. Yes, I know reporters and newspapers are not always objective. But most of them at least make an effort to play things square* and keep the citizenry effectively informed, even if the citizenry is more interested in watching Vines and swapping pics of their jimbly-wimbles.

Some tech titans are belatedly recognizing this. Jeff Bezos deserves mega kudos for buying The Washington Post and shoveling dough into it so it can be, well, The Washington Post. Not every paper, though, has an angel investor in the wings willing to take it on as a non-profit public service. A lot of them are just going to go the way of fax machines and record stores, the difference being we can still get music and send documents. There’s no obvious substitute on the horizon for institutions that take on the mission of watchful citizen.

In the meantime, the throttles on Silicone Valley’s velocity express remain pegged to the max.  And that means things will continue to get broken. Looking at the road kill left in its wake, though, it increasingly makes some of us wonder whether it might wise to get some brakes on this thing.

Thomas Jefferson, who wasn’t exactly averse to breaking things himself, once said that given a choice, he’d rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. If the internet speed freaks won’t ease up, we won’t have to worry about making that choice. If both get broken, there’s nothing left to choose.

*I base this on my decade or so in journalism, spent entirely in small- to mid-size market newspapers. During that time I worked with or around dozens (probably hundreds) of reporters and editors, and the vast majority were genuinely committed to doing the job well. Of course, everyone hated them (us) for doing it.

The State of Dis Union

I’ve spent the last few days carefully analyzing comments and reactions to the SOTU by the POTUS, including remarks, spin, body language, fashion choices and secret masonic signs flashed by FLOTUS, SCOTUS, the VP, the GOP, the DNC, NPR APBs, ASAP polling, pundit OMG-ing and many other acronyms. I’ve come to two conclusions: (1) the media needs to settle its kettle and end the pre-pubescent fascination with abbreviated text talk. WTF? It’s BS that leaves the grownups PO’d. (2) Our union is in a state.

Exactly what sort of state is a subject of some disagreement. Judging by last Tuesday’s speech Donald Trump clearly sees us in a state of historic political felicity and achievement, we’re a rejuvenated republic wisely led by a competent and beneficent government. All that positivism and pep made for a nice bookend to his inaugural address. Remember it was only a year ago he was warning us of “American carnage,” social havoc and misery that he, and he alone, could save us from. Well, problem solved, apparently. Twelve months in and we’ve gone from a society one step away from a sphincter-clenching episode of The Walking Dead to a happy collective growing fat on 401(k) dividends and hiring itinerant welders with our tax returns.

Well, that’s nice to know. Sure, the news came in a bit of a self-congratulatory swag fest.  The administration’s achievements are tremendous, historical, yuge, bigly, unpresidented, etc etc. But, if the whole “mothers and children trapped in poverty,“crime and gangs and drugs,“factories shuttered and leaving our shores” problems are now under control, as the president hinted, it’s hard to begrudge the guy a victory lap.

According to Trump, what’s needed to get the rest of the big to-do list done—infrastructure, immigration, healthcare—is a big dose of bipartisan, git-‘er-done cooperation. And no worries there, because the president is on it. He generously called on all the biased, incompetent, very unfair and TOTALLY DISHONEST losers on the other side of the isle to come together and agree to do what he wants.

Putting out the call for unity and togetherness was no doubt intended to be inspiring stuff.  I’m guessing, though, that it’ll be a tough slog fusing together a democratic glee club out of “Jeff Flake-ly”, “really sad” Lindsey Graham, that “dummy” John McCain, “Pocahaontas” Elizabeth Warren, “Cryin’ Chuck” Schumer, “dumb” politicians generally, and “crooked” Democrats in particular.* Still, the president should be given credit for magnanimously offering room on his bandwagon for all the crybabies who have felt the rough edge of his twitter feed. I’m guessing the shithole country-of-origin crowd are still off the invite list, as is the FBI, the EPA, most of the state department, all us pointy-headed academic types, liberals of all species, anyone from CNN, the New York Times, or any other news organization not called Fox, plus the FBI, short sighted generals, and, well, a long list of others currently considered infra dig. Norwegians are good though, so focus on that generous hand extended to all the Hansens and Johansens yearning to paddle up the fake news fjord.

President Trump’s self-portrait of his administration was basically a Bob Ross mash-up of Lincoln’s wisdom, Washington’s dignity, FDR’s brilliance, Churchill’s defiance, but better than all these because it gets Kim Kardashian ratings (huge!). That’s a good state to be in, so he must be well pleased with where we’re at. Some in the audience, though, were clearly not getting that picture. Seats in the House chamber seemed to be exerting some sort of massive gravitational pull on Democratic butt cheeks. That’s a big contrast with Republicans, who spent an hour-and-a-half doing jack-in-the-box applause burpees, a jump-up-and-clap marathon synchronized to insure the president wouldn’t have to talk longer than an average tweet. It looked like a real cardio and glute workout. “LYIN’ TED” Cruz was sucking wind toward the end, but the “ineffective” “disloyal” Paul Ryan didn’t even break a sweat. Must be all that P90X-ing he does.

Throughout all this vigorous GOP huzzah-ing Democrats stubbornly remained in a state of amoebic high dudgeon. Except for “wacko” “very sad!” Bernie Sanders. He sat in his usual state of high curmudgeon. Anyway, the Dems looked like exactly what they are—impotent onlookers to a political state that displeases them mightily. To get help them get back on track they drafted a young, good looking Kennedy — there always seems to be an endless supply of them — to deliver their party’s official response. The basic precis of that was, “character counts.” It obviously doesn’t, of course. Right after the speech, a porn star was on Jimmy Kimmel Live basically fessing up to bonking the prez and taking hush money to keep it all under the sheets.  Honestly, you’d think a Kennedy, of all people, would know what character counts for in politics.

Anyway, for all the huffing and puffing triggered by this extended piece of political theater, the president’s state of the union revealed nothing that we did not already know about, well, the state of union. Trump and his backers are still in a state of schadenfreude bliss, and everyone else is still in a state of blistering pique and vexation. Trump’s words and “weak on crime” Nancy Pelosi’s sour lemon phiz didn’t change any of that a lick. It just clarified the agreement on our disunion, the unanimity of our dedication to political partition. And that’s a terrible state to be in.

*Everything in quotes in this post is an actual public insult delivered by the president about the person in question. To see a comprehensive accounting of who he’s insulted and how click here. It’s a long list.

Democrats Lose the Gotcha Bowl

Sen. John Kennedy, R-LA, wins this week’s award for most pithy summation of the state of contemporary politics: “Our country was founded by geniuses,” he said, “but it’s being run by idiots.” *

As a fully paid-up member of the ruling establishment, Kennedy is better positioned than me to evaluate the Republic’s latest wobble from democracy towards idiocracy. Given the events of the last week, though, it’s hard to disagree. Congress got itself into such a state of the partisan snits that it shut down the government. And, such is the state we’re in, pretty much nobody noticed.

Partly this was because it took place over a weekend when most of us had better things to do than pay attention to politicians doing something ill-advised. We can do that anytime. Pretty much like we can watch the Patriots win the AFC any old year. On the other hand, you only get to see the Vikings fold like a cheap accordion in the NFC championship game maybe once every decade (they’re usually pre-folded before the post-season). Bottom line: The NFL playoffs put most of us in a cheap beer and Cheetos coma, with little intellectual wattage left for dealing with the latest DC disaster. By Monday most of the populace was still glumly coming to terms with Shady Brady and his band of annoyingly brilliant Foxboro fraud flingers going back to the big dance. The only thing they could be bothered to ask about the shutdown was, “Who won?”

We political science profs usually despair over the electorate reducing politics to the equivalent of a playoff game. We really should not be treating politics with the same scoreboard mentality as sporting events, even if the metaphor is apt given that immigrants, sick children, and the paychecks of millions of federal employees were being used as political footballs. The stakes here really are more serious than a superannuated quarterback getting to hoist the Lombardi Trophy (again) and say “Thpppt!” to Roger Goodell. I know, I know. Whatever. Who got the W?

Well, the winner of this month’s Gotcha Bowl–the re-match is already scheduled–is clearly the congressional Republicans, especially Mitch McConnell. Their proposal is the one that passed, and it passed because the commitment of Senate Democrats collapsed faster than the Blake Bortles dream of Super Bowl glory. Dems wanted an immigration deal and triple-dog dared the GOP to either give them one or shutter the gummint. The thinking was that, worst case scenario, the GOP caves on immigration after the public has a j’accuse hissy when national parks start closing the bathrooms.

Didn’t happen. The Dems not only did not get what they want, their hasty capitulation has their base hopping mad, and the whole mess managed to make congressional Republicans look reasonable and moderate. Even for Democrats, that’s a jaw dropping, self-inflicted penalty. Why did the Senate Democrats do this? Why bother making immigration a red line negotiating demand if you’re going to swoon into the arms of Republican preferences at the first whiff of partisan gunpowder?

Simple. It basically came down to brutal and heartless political arithmetic. The Dems genuinely want a good deal for the Dreamers, immigrants illegally brought into the country as minors. These are roughly 800,000 people facing deportation even though the United States is the only home they’ve ever really known. You have to be pretty stone-hearted not to have sympathy with these folks and lots of people–including many GOP members of Congress–want to get them out of their appalling legal limbo. This is exactly what the Dems demanded as the price of ending the shutdown. In doing so, though, they somehow forgot that they are also defending 10 Senate seats in Red States this year (i.e. states won by Donald Trump). In those states, holding the government and children’s healthcare hostage to force a deal that benefits non-citizens is a political loser. The equation doesn’t balance in plenty of other states either, but Democratic senators from those ten states were motivated to work out the math quicker. Once they figured out voters weren’t going to pat them on the back for seeking permanent legal status for immigrants by holding up paychecks for the troops, the jig was up. Democrats being Democrats, it took them two days to realize this. Belatedly, they realized their grand gamble was a pig’s breakfast and sounded the retreat.

It required no high-level feat of cognition to see all this coming before any of it happened. Basic political sentience and a minimal dot connecting capability should have been enough to put it in the forecast, but apparently these are skill sets in short supply among the Democratic Party’s leadership ranks. Just how bad was the Dems’ performance in the Gotcha Bowl? Well, let’s just say they could teach Tom Brady a thing or two about deflated balls. You don’t necessarily need geniuses to run a republic, but it sure helps to have people whose game plan is not the political equivalent of punting on first downs and whining to the ref.

*NOTE: Kennedy said this, but it’s not original–variants of this quip have been floating around the internet for at least five years .  Yet as original thinking or, heck, even just basic connect-the-dots cognition, is not exactly a hallmark of current politics, the Kennedy summation is not only an on-point observation, it does double duty in highlighting the problem addressed in this week’s post.

 

It’s Not The Economy. Maybe It’s The Stupid.

Republican lawmakers are currently defying one of the most widely accepted laws of political thermodynamics: for every economic motion there is a parallel and sympathetic political reaction. Or, as the Cajun Clinton whisperer James Carville put it, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Okay, so it’s not exactly a law. But what’s good for the economy is good for whatever crew is running the government–especially the White House division–has proven a pretty good rule of thumb. As has its reciprocal. If the Dow Jones skitters down a gopher hole it’s a good bet the president’s approval rating is also going subterranean. Just ask Bush 43. Or Bush 41.

Which is why the GOP currently seems to be defying political gravity. By just about any measure the economy is rocking. The stock market sizzles, unemployment is 4 percent, GDP growth is a robust 3.2 percent, and a tight labor market has wages on the rise, which is good news for the lunch pail sectors that repeatedly got the shaft while the one percenters expanded their goldmines. When the git-yer-jollies-on money machine cranks up pols instinctively know there’s credit to be claimed in them thar dividends. So given all the economic positives, the piggy backers, windbags and horn blowers in charge should be huffing through a victory lap, throwing humblebrags to the voters, and sailing toward comfortable reelections.

Yet our GOP overlords seem to be reaping little of the political reward that normally accrues to lawmakers lucky enough to rule at the hilly end of the business cycle. Indeed, as measured by popular approval ratings, they are getting slammed. Forget rodent holes. Republican poll ratings are so low they have to look up to see gopher butt. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are stuck in the 30s, which is historically terrible, but still nearly double that of Republicans and their leaders in Congress (Mitch McConnell’s public approval is roughly the same as the tatometer rating for Showgirls which is, well, not good). Dozens of Republican members of Congress aren’t even waiting for the voters to render a verdict on their record of governance. So many have announced retirement there’s been a run on gold watches. What in the name of Milton Friedman is going on?

It’s a multi-variate world and there’s more than one reason why the economy is going up while the GOP’s popularity sinks lower than gum stuck to a submariner’s shoe. Certainly the, um, character issues of the president have something to do with it. There are many ways to ding your party’s reputation, and certainly doing stuff like referring to vast swaths of the planet as “shitholes” and paying hush money to porn stars is right up there. Especially if you already have a permanent case of the tweet trots and spent the past a year cementing a reputation as a chaos artist. True believers please feel free to insert here the obligatory all-purpose, all-caps snappy comebacks here. FAKE NEWS!!! WHAT ABOUT HER EMAILS!! Persuasive stuff, as always.

Now that’s out of the way, let me say I don’t think it’s just Trump’s coarse and immature shenanigans that has the Republicans in trouble (though it sure hasn’t helped). A big part of the problem is that Republicans continue to govern as if they swept into office on the back of a clear mandate, and they weren’t. According to the Federal Election Commission,  there were roughly 180 million votes cast for Democratic candidates in 2016 (this is the combined total for president, Senate and House), and about 168 million cast for Republican candidates.* In other words, as a whole the American electorate had a slight, but clear, preference for the Democratic Party. And it got a wholly Republican government.

There’s nothing wrong or suspicious or nefarious about this. The whole federal electoral system is based on state and sub-state constituencies, there is no nationally elected office (the president is elected by the states through the Electoral College, not the people), and parts of it are wildly malapportioned (the United States Senate). So the way the math works out, it’s not exactly a shocker that one party can be elected to control government even though, overall, it has less support among voters than the party consigned to the minority. The GOP won fair-sies square-sies and those still whining to the contrary just don’t understand the system.

Yet winning isn’t enough to make a go of governing. I’ve made this basic point before, but it bears repeating: the weird situation of a party controlling a democratic government when it was opposed by most voters at the polls means governing style really matters. Writing laws in secret (and employing industry hacks as ghostwriters), bending norms and rules to avoid bipartisan engagement (or even debate) might work if a sizeable majority is cheering you on. The problem for the GOP is they have no such constituency. And they’re unlikely to get one if they keep doing what they’re doing. Indeed, a plurality of the electorate (perhaps even a majority) already seems to view them less as agents for the American people, but as a group that sold its soul–not to mention its dignity–for power. That creates a big legitimacy problem.

Specifically, it translates into a lack of public approval, economy be damned. An ill-advised approach to process, treating indefensible proclamations from the party chief with situational amnesia, vacuous appeals to alt-facts, etc., etc., all this starts to catch up. Smart conservatives–and there’s still plenty around–have been shouting about this for a while (David Brooks, Jeff Flake, Charlie Sykes, even Ben Shapiro). It’s just that their own side isn’t listening.  And they should, because at some point it’s not the economy, stupid, that’s the issue. Sometimes it’s just the stupid.

*There were also about 18 million votes cast for non-major party candidates.

 

The Stars In Our Eyes

P.T. Barnum, flapdoodle merchant and bunkum plugger par excellence, got filthy rich by embracing the premise that the vast majority of Americans are chumps. Stitch a monkey’s head to a fish tail and say it’s a mermaid and they’ll believe it (and pay to see it). Ask for a nickel to see the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington and credulous hands will dip into pockets. There’s no real evidence that Barnum actually said “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but, boy, he sure put that hypothesis to the test.

Barnum is, of course, best known as a showman and entertainer, a sort of nineteenth-century mashup of Donald Trump, Robert Ripley and the Kardashian family. What’s less known about him is that he was also a politician. He served several terms in the Connecticut legislature, was elected mayor of Bridgeport, and was a serious candidate for the United States House of Representatives (he lost in a tough race to his cousin, William Henry Barnum).

In the political arena Barnum was a lot more serious than the carnival huckster caricature he left to history.  He was a vocal advocate of progressive causes (notably equality of African Americans), a big wheel in the temperance movement, and helped found Bridgeport’s hospital. It’s a fair bet, though, that Barnum’s take on voters wasn’t too far removed from his assessment of the gulls he hornswoggled with tabloid sensationalism and sideshow hoaxes. Indeed, he basically said as much, writing with more than a bit of a wink that, “need I explain to my own beloved countrymen that there is humbug in politics?”

While Barnum was far from the first to point out that that politics involves a heavy ration of babble and balderdash, he probably understood better than most that Americans are not policy wonks. Not even close. They respond less to ten point plans than a bit of glam and glitter, they like to see government magnificoes dusted with a bit of star power. Nobody likes a politician, but we love our celebrities. As a group we are quick to conflate fame with accomplishment, to assign to VIPs on the other side of the velvet rope the power to make our economy cabin lives better.

Indeed, there is a very long list of TMZ tribunes the electorate has put into office. And after all, why not? Looking good on camera or possessing a preternatural ability to fling around an inflated leather bladder surely is qualification enough for office? Barnum, of all people, would get that we’ve elected governors because they’re famous wrestlers (Jesse Ventura) or body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger), people to Congress because they were TV stars, singers or comedians (e.g. Fred “Gopher from Love Boat” Grandy, Ben “Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard” Jones, Sonny “I got you babe” Bono, Al Franken). We elected a movie star to the presidency in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan). In the 1990s voters in Tennessee made silver screen make-believe a reality by voting Fred Thompson–an actor known for playing politicians–into the United States Senate. Big light names from sports have also traded stardom for a political career, including luminaries from the big three of football (Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Tom Osborne), basketball (Bill Bradley), and baseball (Jim Bunning).

Given this, it’s hard to be surprised over serious speculation that the next presidential election might come down to a contest between an incumbent best known for being a combative staple of reality TV and a famous talk show host. A duo so famous pretty much all Americans know them just by the first names–Donald and Oprah. And what better place for Oprah to float a presidential campaign trial balloon than at a celebrity awards show. Winfrey’s speech at last week’s Golden Globes kicked off an enthusiasm for a White House run that hit “yes we can!” levels in some Democratic circles.

If this is where politics is headed–and let’s face it, we’ve been shuffling down this road for a while– maybe we should go the whole hog and start appointing people to run the government from the same talent pool. What about Johnny Galecki as secretary of education, he plays an academic on TV (Prof. Leonard Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory). Kevin Costner for secretary of agriculture, he played a farmer in Field of Dreams. Maybe Tom Hanks or Tom Brady to run the Defense Department (Hanks was a great soldier in Saving Private Ryan and Brady is a pretty good field general).  Make Whoopi Goldberg attorney general–given her stands on The View, she seems pretty into justice.

This all makes about as much sense as picking our presidents from the ranks of the red carpet and Entertainment Tonight set. If we’ve lost our faith in expertise, after all, why not put our faith in people who are not experts, but play experts for our amusement? The big argument against doing this sort of thing, of course, is that it’s wackadoodle crazy. It’s like choosing a surgeon for your cardiac procedure from the cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Or maybe like choosing a president because he stands in the public arena like Maximus from Gladiator and smugly says, “are you not entertained!”

Which is to say, it’s not crazy at all from preferences historically and currently expressed by the American voter. Doesn’t matter how serious the stakes, we want to be entertained, not be responsible, and certainly not responsibly led.  To achieve that we’re perfectly willing to believe political plot lines and promises that make no sense outside a scriptwriter’s fevered dreams or Jerry Springer’s studio. We are, in short, pretty much what PT Barnum thought we were. Suckers.

 

Fact and Friction

The alt-truth, fake news, facts schmacts world we seem to be living in rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Living in verity’s version of the upside down might salve the addled ideological souls of some, but it gives the rest of us the fantods. Especially us empirical scholars. If society decides to call off the search for verifiable truth, after all, we’re out of business. Lacking the fib and fabrication skills readily monetized in the corporate, political and entertainment worlds, we’ll be reduced to shilling empirical verification for coppers on street corners and editing Wikipedia entries on spec.

Well, good news. Despite all the hand wringing, there’s reason to believe that the reach and impact of fake news is, um, fake news. Even more cheering for those of us in the learnin’ biz, there is some persuasive evidence that facts are not quite the ideological Play-Doh some people clearly want them to be.

This isn’t to say the past couple of years hasn’t seen a particularly nasty beat down of bona fide veracity, especially by certain presidents of the United States I could name. Everyone expects a degree of truthiness from politicians, but respectable fact checking sites suggest Donald Trump is less guilty of the occasional white lie than the madcap production of technicolor extravaganzas. Politifact lists ten pages of verified false claims made by the president. The New York Times has a running tally showing Trump telling more provable falsehoods in 10 months than Barack Obama told in his entire eight-year administration.

Aiding the White House as the new home of the whopper is the full-on weaponization of social media. Russian trolls seem to work Facebook’s algorithms with impunity while Twitter enables the wholesale spraying of perfidy and perjury. For the past couple of years a careful observer could be forgiven for concluding that our political system, with premeditation and purpose, was abandoning the truth wholesale. Just how many people were consuming fake news? Did it herald the decline of mainstream media and the professional norms of journalism? Were facts being kicked to the side by voters? Have we gone completely nuts? The people tasked with sorting signal from noise and answering these sorts of question systematically are my tribe–empirical social scientists–and they operate on slower timelines than the 24/7 news cycle. The rise of alternative realities happened so fast that the only honest answer we had to these sorts of questions was, “damned if we know, but it’s pretty worrying.”

That’s starting to change. A couple of studies have recently surfaced that suggest fake news is scary but not enough to frighten the Republic into fact-addled delirium, and, even more comforting, they find that facts themselves still trump fibs, or at least give fibs a good argumentative wedgie.

The first of these studies does contain some kind of scary numbers (you can find the full study here) . Roughly a quarter of American adults, or 65 million people, visited a fake news website* in the month leading up to the 2016 election, most of them making that connection through a Facebook link. Moreover, most of these fake news consumers almost never visited reliable fact-checking websites.

The good news is that heavy consumers of fake news make up a very small proportion of Americans. Roughly 60 percent of the visits to fake news sites came from a small group (about 10 percent of adults) who were older, conservative and (very) pro-Trump. So perhaps the fact-free fabulist babble bubble everyone is so worried about is not a dome covering the Republic, some sort of hermetically sealed covering threatening to asphyxiate the electorate with the gas of toxic make-believe. Maybe it’s just a pocket-sized greenhouse in the backyard where your crazy uncle is getting light headed from inhaling alt-media political poots and discussing conspiracy theories with the geraniums.

The second study  is deep empirical dive into what’s known as the “backfire effect” (you can the full study here) . The basic idea of the backfire effect is that if you present someone with a fact that counters or corrects a politically pleasing falsehood it makes people more not less likely to support that untruth. Evidence of the backfire effect has popped up in previous research and raised some interesting questions. Are people really so committed to their political alternative realities that pointing out contradictory facts will only make them more committed to insisting on the truth of falsehoods?

Given what’s happened over the past couple of years in the political arena that’s a pretty important question. This study sought an answer by giving people factually incorrect claims made by prominent figures on the left (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama) and the right (e.g. Donald Trump, Sarah Palin). They then randomly exposed some subjects to a factual correction of those statement, and asked everyone to evaluate the original claim. The difference in evaluations between those exposed and those not exposed provides a measure of the impact of factual information on political claims. Through five studies and more than 10,000 subjects, they did not find a single instance of backfire across more than 50 policy issues. Indeed, what they found is that people, regardless of ideological orientation, are pretty responsive to facts contradicting their political preferences, and will shift their evaluations towards the factual evidence when it is presented with them.

Neither of these studies should be considered definitive, and both come with the usual cautions and caveats of empirical social science research (my tribe’s motto is plus research opus, i.e. more research is needed). Still, given the hand wringing over fake news and the embrace of alternative realities and their potentially corrosive impact on politics, I think it is okay to view these findings with a small measure of relief. There’s a reasonable case here that most citizens are not voraciously consuming fake news inside their own political echo chambers, though Facebook and Twitter can make it look that way. And, even if they are, facts still seem capable of putting the brakes on fake. Let’s hope we get more of that sort of friction in 2018.

*What exactly constitutes a fake news website is a matter of some controversy. The authors of this study relied on previous research identifying “news” websites that repeatedly published demonstrably false stores.

Okay, So Now What?

The Republican Party has notched its first big legislative win of this Congress, and has cranked the hyperbole machine to redline in celebration of their achievement. For President Trump it’s a down payment on making America great again. To Mitch McConnell it’s sweet, sweet relief. It appears to have given Paul Ryan a policy-gasm, an Atlas-mugged-while-having-an-Ayn-Randian- eye-roller sort of scenario.

The cause of all the giddy bluster and gloat is, of course, passage of the tax bill, a hugely complicated piece of legislation that, even now, few people have actually read and whose consequences are fully grasped by no one. Certainly not the legislators who voted for it, up to and including the self-satisfied magnificoes currently taking a victory lap and getting their boast on. It’s a dead certainty it rewards corporations with fattened profit margins, and there’s no doubt that it will give swells like our president more of the gravy. Those of us whose position in the proportional distribution is not within hailing distance of the one percent will get a few crumbs for a few years, but then it all goes away and our taxes start going up again.

While we know, at least in rough outline, that much about the tax bill, it’s just a smidge of what the furious midnight scribblings of a thousand lobbyists have actually wrought upon our economy, the government’s fiduciary position, and our personal finances. The bill is shot through with pecuniary pork for the favored water haulers of the GOP. Senator Bob Corker, for example, was shocked—shocked I tell you—that people thought he flipped his vote just because of a last minute addition to the bill that would personally enrich him. Riiiight. The entire bill is a stew of Corker kickbacks seasoned with ideological wishful thinking and held together with ambiguity and Oxford commas. Once touted as a simplification drive that would shrink tax returns to a post card, in reality this legislative stinker could have been more accurately called the Tax Accountant Full Employment Act. It’s all exception and deception, loop and hole, and TurboTax’s coders are going to be putting in overtime to get their algorithms around it all.

While we really don’t know what the tax bill does, we do know what the governing party has done in order to pass it. They have written a law in secret, shoved it through a legislature by running roughshod over procedural norms and bipartisan collegiality, and are engaging in a festival of self-congratulatory whoop-dee-doo behind a smoke screen of sophistry.

What’s truly odd about all this is that nobody outside of GOP patricians seems to care. True, public opinion is clearly against the legislation, with a majority of Americans viewing it as something primarily designed to benefit the rich. There’s no real groundswell of anger and opposition, though, certainly nothing on the order of the backlash that put the kibosh on Obamacare repeal. The best summary of public reaction to the tax bill, even among Trump supporters, is “meh.” The GOP is using the government as a scoop to shovel more coin into the pockets of the gilded and the glamorous? Shoving stuff down our throats even though a clear majority of us clearly don’t want it? Shrugs-ville. The public no longer seems to be shocked or upset at the GOP doing that sort of thing, it’s what they expect the Republican Party to do. In other words, act as an agent for affluent, willing to cut whatever corners needed to bring tribute to its corporate sponsors.

That’s a pretty dangerous position for a political party—especially a governing political party—to be in. If public opinion polls are to be believed (admittedly, a debatable proposition), the GOP’s first big legislative “win” is being viewed as an act of fealty to a privileged minority, something done in defiance of the will of the people and with contempt for the norms of lawmaking. Flushed with success, the Republican leadership is now promising to go on to bigger and better things. But what might they be? What can the GOP get done when with its only big legislative score has left the public cold, made a mockery of the legislative process, shredded bipartisanship, and produced a law that nobody really understands? Well, you got me.

Messrs. Trump, McConnell and Ryan, have taken a bow, crowed some crow and patted each other’s backs raw. Okay, so now what?

The GOP’s Sunset Judges

John Adams, second president of the United States and noted puritanical sourpuss, had a tough start to 1801. The election of 1800 had been brutal to Adams and his Federalist Party, an epic fanny kicking from that insufferable know-it-all Thomas Jefferson and his smug gang of waffle whisperers, the (to us) oxymoronically named Democratic-Republican Party.

Even worse than losing control of the executive and legislative branches of government was the dawning realization that as a political force, the Federalists were spent. While the party would stagger on as a regional player in New England for another decade or so, the Federalists were done as a national-level electoral threat. The rump of their Congressional caucus retreated into opposition and soon receded into nothingness.

So, you can understand Adams’ agony in the first months of 1801. Under the rules of the day, Jefferson–who Adams saw as little more than as a cheese-eating Gauloises puffer–didn’t take office until March. Adams, therefore, had plenty of time to contemplate the electorate’s rejection of his political party and marinate in the vinegary knowledge that the Democratic-Republicans would be ruling the roost for the foreseeable future. How could the Federalists retain even a smidge of influence if the voters viewed them as toxic?

Well, there is one other branch of government that, luckily for Adams, was largely insulated from the electorate. Members of the federal judiciary never have to chance the ballot box to keep their jobs and once appointed, unless they engage in felony-level naughtiness, they are in for life. And thus the Adams administration hit upon a formula for insuring long-term influence for a political party just categorically rejected by the voters. The Federalist congress jammed through a bill creating a bunch of new federal courts. Adams stuffed these with the so-called “Midnight Judges,” last-minute appointees specifically selected to insure the Federalists would continue to rule on the big issues of the day for years to come.

I kind of wonder if we’re seeing something similar going on with Donald Trump and the Republican Party right now. The comparison might be a little strained because, electorally speaking, they are not lame ducks, but young fowl still dipping their beaks into the sweet, sweet spoils of victory. Yet if public opinion is any guide, the president and his party are already less popular than the Federalists. Indeed, their polling numbers are so low they have to look up to see whale butt (Nate and crew over at FiveThirtyEight can give you all the gory details). So, while there may be no official lame ducks, recent election results and survey trends suggest the Republican Party definitely is developing a bit of a gimp.

Even if it is headed for an electoral smash-up, though, the party’s long-term influence is being secured through a pell-mell drive to appoint judges. And, thanks to the GOP’s bang up job of sidelining Barrack Obama’s appointments, there’s a lot of judgeships to fill. So, if you’re pro-life, pro-business, pro-corporation, anti-environment, anti-public schools, no probs. Even a complete tanking at the ballot box by Republicans means the black robe set will be there to help insure that your bank or hedge fund is safe from predatory customers wanting to know where their money went. These aren’t midnight judges so much as sunset judges. Right now, there’s still plenty of light falling on Republicans, but these appointments are like early stars that will continue to provide ideological illumination for the GOP should its electoral fortunes go dark.

While it all smacks of unseemly partisan fiddling with the scales of justice, Adams’ appointments showed this sort of sneaky-beaky could have an upside. One of his midnight judges was none other than Chief Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, one of the most important and influential jurists of his and any other era. Trump’s appointments, though, don’t seem quite in that league. Take Matthew Petersen. At his confirmation hearing, under gentle questioning from a Republican Senator about his qualifications for the bench, Petersen all but said, “I don’t know jack about the law, but think I could swing a mean gavel” (you can watch a cringe-inducing video of this exchange here). But there’s also Brett Talley who, among other things, posted online smoochies to the KKK and forgot his wife worked in the White House office. How did a guy like that end up getting nominated? Well, Talley’s job—I’m not making this up—was deciding who would make a good judicial nominee for the Trump administration. Not hard to connect dots there. There’s also Jeff Mateer, who was so impartial and committed to due process for all that he declared transgender children as part of “Satan’s plan” and disgusting.

These three guys’ nominations failed because even Republicans dedicated to the lickety-split process of stuffing as many conservatives onto the court as possible blanched. Yet they’re completely fine with giving the likes of Leonard Steven Grasz a lifetime appointment, even though Grasz was rated unqualified to serve by the American Bar Association. The basic consideration for being rated qualified by the ABA is pretty minimal. Having a law degree and the power of speech is usually does the trick (less than one-tenth of one-percent of nominees get rated unqualified). The ABA interviewed a couple of hundred people about Grasz and heard a consistent story that, among other things, Grasz was an unrelenting ideologue and was “gratuitously rude.” To the GOP, that was just sort of guy who should be a federal judge.

Grasz, along with the rest of Trump’s huge swath of nominees, will spend decades on the bench, their appointments encasing in political amber the ideals of the party currently holding power. Whatever the electoral future of the GOP, its sunset judges ensure its influence will continue. Adams would be proud.

Winning is a Loser for the GOP

Roy Moore (R-19th Century) lost to Doug Jones (D-Surprised) in Alabama’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions (R-I Don’t Recall). But it’s not really clear who actually won. Dems–and certainly Jones–might take issue with that. Well, fair enough, it would be churlish not recognize this as a big fat blue W, a triumph achieved in the reddest of red states. As those sort of wins are rare as principled legislators on the Senate floor, it’s hard to begrudge them a whoop and a victory lap.

Funnily enough, though, this was also a win for Republicans or, to be more accurate, the least painful form of defeat. In this election, no positive outcome was possible for the GOP. Moore gets elected and Republicans either seat someone credibly charged with sexual abuse of minors, or expel one of their own. Political hot potato doesn’t do that scenario justice. That’s a tuber of incandescent sizzle, a pickup-sized root vegetable packing more capsaicin than a jalapeno. A Moore win would have forced the Senate GOP to choke down that sucker whole while the entire nation watched their faces turn red and tears squirt from their eyes. No sane Republican wanted that for their party; it would’ve been preface to civil war or moral disarmament, and maybe both.

Some Republicans–Donald Trump and the RNC–were clearly willing to take those risks and threw in their lot with Moore. Plenty of other Republicans–Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, Richard Shelby, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, etc.–approached the special election with clearer eyes and colder calculations about the costs of a Moore victory. The GOP grownups actively opposed Moore and/or supported Jones for a simple reason. The only way forward they could see for their party was to have their own candidate lose. Tuesday’s result gave this pretty large group of Republicans what they wanted. They won. By losing.

Unfortunately for Republicans, their through-the-looking-glass political calculus of gaining political victories with defeats is not limited to this one special election. The no-Moore gambit isn’t a one-off tactical hit, a losing a battle to win a war sort of thing. The Republican Party seems to have adopted a full blown strategy of winning by losing. They won the presidency, but lost the dignity of that office. They won a Congressional majority, but lost the ability to govern themselves. They won control of government, but lost the faith of the people. They won power, but seem to have lost their soul. When you’re reduced to calculating whether to support a suspected pedophile or attack a candidate fair-and-square selected by your own voters, you really are at the point where losses count as wins.

Voters on Tuesday, no doubt, saved the Republican Party an enormous amount of humiliation and discomfort. Yet while Alabama prevented the GOP from publicly airing its crimson hide in a painful expulsion debate, this was balm for a symptom rather than a cure for the underlying problem. The problem is the Republican Party is imploding under its own success. They have somehow got themselves into a corner where their “victories” exact enormous–potentially existential–political costs. Yet they can’t afford too many losses, because losing runs the risk of exposing the GOP as a party more than willing to lose its principles as long as it wins power.

Thinking Republicans–and, despite recent evidence to the contrary, there’s still plenty of these folks around–not only recognize this, they’re agonizing over it. This list includes people like Charlie Sykes, David Brooks, George Will, Jeff Flake, and many more, a long list of those reluctant to accept a majority stake in government for their party if it means choking down the populist-flavored Kool-Aid Donald Trump is serving up.

So where does this leave the Republican Party? Other than cleaved in two, it’s hard to say. The populist and establishment wings are openly warring with each other and it’s not clear what, if anything, holds them together as a coherent political force. There’s no discernible consistent philosophical or intellectual principle driving its policy agenda. The primary motivation behind the party increasingly seems to be the pursuit of power because it makes it easier to stick it to a varied group of people and institutions–immigrants, the poor, environmentalists, scientists, the media, public schools, higher education, and especially Democrats–they see as causing them grief.  The closest thing to a guiding set of principle seems to be an infomercial pitch that the new and improved tax-cuts-for-the-rich will cure everything–Unemployment! Manufacturing malaise! Healthcare! Whooping cough! Zits! This doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone any more, including large swaths of the party faithful. It’s getting harder and harder even for GOP stalwarts to buy into the populist piffle and accusatory tweet storms that increasingly characterize Republican governance.

Maybe the party could win by suffering a massive loss in the 2018 midterms. A period in the wilderness might give it a shot at reflection and rejuvenation, or at least a chance for its dueling wings to get into the full-throated death match members of both camps are clearly lusting for. Whoever emerged from that throw-down would at least give us a clear idea of whether the GOP really wants to be the center-right party of Reagan or the champion of alt-right populism. Regardless, if they retain control of government in their current state there’s a very real possibility they cease to be a viable political party in any form, at least over the long term.  Unfortunately for the GOP, its midterm opponent is the Democratic Party, which rarely misses an opportunity to snatch defeat from the mandibles of victory. So, Republicans might have one more victory left in them. And that means they will lose. By winning.

Credit Card Conservatism

Who knows what the final version of the Republican tax plan currently winding its way through Congress will end up doing. Certainly not the people who actually vote for it. Last week the Senate passed a bill that nobody had read and many found, quite literally, illegible. Senators got the “final” 500-page version minutes before they voted on it and it was an editor’s nightmare. There were huge last-minute changes drafted in prescription pad chicken scratch. Here’s an example of what it looked like:

Based on just this one page’s marginal addendums, Senators were given only a few minutes to decide whether they would vote “yea” or “nay” on the critical issue of, and I quote as near as I can decipher, “adjustments attribulatos conservism for a craporation.”  Said adjustments subject to “(1) Inguanas in the care of ellifiths rumnitatdos craporation any incage.” Well, as a matter of public policy that’s a toughie. I suppose I could understand a legislator supporting rumitading Inguanas if it was all done by consenting adults. It’s a free country. But why force innocent ellifiths to get involved? Surely there’s some moral, if not legal, objection to that? And why does anyone have to get craporated at all? That sounds downright painful (Q: Howya feeling Bill? A: I’m craporated).

In all seriousness, the Senate has gone silly. When it comes to writing law, you kind of expect the House to indulge in the odd round of ill-considered speed stating. It’s kind of what it was designed for, to capture popular passions or, as is increasingly these case these days, to capture unpopular passions. The Senate, though, is supposed to be the grown up branch. If the House puts things on the boil, it’s the upper chamber’s job to cool them down. The Senate is supposed to be the reflective, ruminative chamber, the legislative nanny who pulls the government’s fingers out of whatever light socket the House has jammed them into. Well, these days, not so much. Present the Senate with the political equivalent of an electrical outlet and somebody’s digits–most likely ours–are going to get lit up.

It’s kind of hard to overstate the negatives of the process used to jam the tax bill through the Senate. Forget all the pat-on-the-back hoo-hah about that place being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” There wasn’t any deliberation, no thoughtful pleas on one side balanced with reasoned pleas on the other. It was about speed, not plead. No public hearings, no real chance for any analysis, not even time to read the damn thing–there’s a high probability that not a single legislator really knew the specifics of what they were or were not voting for. Lobbyists wrote much of the law–more than half of the registered lobbyists in Washington DC report working on tax legislation  — and they did it on the fly. At least some senators received their copies of the “final” bill from lobbyists rather than from Republican leadership. This isn’t how you make law. This is how you make a mess.

The jettisoning of Senate procedural norms to engage in a slapdash sprint to pass legislation that is clearly going to cost a packet is all the more puzzling because of who is doing it. Lots of Republican senators — and certainly plenty of their colleagues in the House — have spent years campaigning on the dangers of growing government debt and deficits. Agree or disagree, resisting the production of more federal red ink has been a central principle for many Republicans. So much for that. Currently, there is little interest in such principles and even less in the interest that’ll be due on the principal thanks to the loan Congress will have to float to pay for it all (that interest is easily going to be 50-plus billion dollars).

A generous interpretation of what’s going on with the tax bill is that Republicans are playing the long game. By driving the deficit up and putting expiration dates on the middle-class tax breaks, at some point in the next decade a broke and unpopular government (bonus if it’s got a Democratic majority) will have no choice but to make some serious cuts. By then the rushed and incompetent legislation that created the empty pockets will be long forgotten. Taking advantage of the electorate’s political amnesia, Republicans can then say, “hate to do it, but the government is totally broke and we’ll have to take some of your Social Security and Medicare to balance the books. Bummer, but whaddya gonna do?  Don’t look too close, just remember Obamacare, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, etc., etc.”

I’m skeptical some long-game master plan is under all this.  What we seem to be witnessing is a sort of credit card conservatism. Like shopaholics glued to QVC, the GOP just doesn’t seem to able to help itself. Desperate to cover the emptiness it feels over a lack of legislative accomplishments, Republicans are putting as much as they can on the old plastic fantastic to appease special interest sponsors and justify its majority. It’ll worry about the minimum payments later.

Buying goodies for your crew on the never, never, though, runs a big risk of buyer’s remorse. Voters clearly think they’re being suckered—public opinion polls suggest that large majorities think the tax plan is mostly a scam to benefit the well-off (you can peruse a range of them here).  So, passing a plan with dubious arguments about borrowing from the future so the Grey Poupon crowd can make bank in the here and now might stick in people’s memories longer than some realize. If that happens, the tax plan might turn out to get the reaction we all have when we open those monthly envelopes from Visa and MasterCard: Well, rumitard an Inguana, we’ll never pay this off. We’re totally craporated.