It’s Not Inevitable
The future will be fantastic. We just gotta get there.
Dear friends -
It has been far too long since I’ve written to you. I think of you every day, and while much has changed since I last wrote, you could just as easily say not much has changed. The shape and direction of our politics has only persisted and accelerated and Rule One most definitely still holds. Mark my words, it will get crazier.
Knowing that hard truths are hard to share, I put off writing this email. And when I finally started to write, I was going to offer an excuse: “to quote my grandmother, if you have nothing nice to say…” but my grandmother wouldn’t have said that. She wasn’t into niceties, and met life head on. Her family came to California over a hundred years ago via New York, via Prince Edward Island, via the Scottish Highlands. She had that deep Braveheart courage-madness-persistence. Against all odds, torpedoes be damned. When polio robbed her of her third child in utero, putting her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she fully inhabited that American-Scottish determination for justice. She once appeared on the local TV news, sitting in her wheelchair outside the county courthouse: the only entrance was up some stairs, so she just sat there for hours, for days, as a protest. Eventually they acquiesced and made the building wheelchair accessible.
All of this to say: Josephine Davidson (née McPhee) would not have tolerated silence or acquiescence to unequal odds and challenging times. She would have demanded truth and justice. She would have campaigned for a better way, and so here I am to tell you: the hour is late, we’ve got light pockets, but it is no time to give up. Let’s face facts and get to work:
The Playing Field is Uneven: Republicans have a fundamental structural advantage in the design of the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. Headed into this year’s House races, they have a tactical advantage: not only does their long-running control of state legislatures mean they have drawn the Congressional districts largely to their advantage, but Americans tend to dislike one party control and historically are likely to put the GOP in charge of the House again. The House also has that fundamental structural advantage for the Republicans. To put it in stark relief: I live in the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts; the population is 768,043 Americans. The population of Wyoming is 576,851; like me, they’ve got one Member of Congress … but they’ve also got two US Senators, not to mention three Electoral College votes.
Get Ready for January 6, 2024: From where I stand, with current polling and political data as well as the aforementioned structural deficiencies in the electoral system, the most likely outcome of the 2022 elections is Republican control of the House of Representatives. The Senate is more competitive but – don’t forget – 50/50 in every conceivable way. We’ll probably roll into the 2024 presidential race with a Speaker of the House who will not certify a Democrat as winner of the presidential campaign, regardless of the vote count. As a reminder, this is a Republican Party with no public policy, no interest in passing legislation. It was almost fourteen years ago that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell made clear that power alone motivated the Republican party: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Two years is an eternity in politics, but right now all signs point towards a specific outcome: on January 6th, 2024 a Republican presidential candidate (likely Trump) without a popular majority (and probably without a legitimate electoral college majority) will be certified by a Republican Congress as President. What will happen then? It’ll get crazier.
The Politics of Inevitability: You can see my reluctance to write to you given my grim view of our situation. But I remember my grandmother Josephine and I refuse to give up. The historian Timothy Snyder writes in his excellent book, The Road To Unfreedom, that the path to tyranny is when the “politics of inevitability” take hold. That’s when we give up on ideas, give up on having choices, and simply give in to what seems inevitable. Who among us hasn’t felt like giving in to a pandemic that has brought down average American life expectancy by almost two years, not to mention the climate crisis? “1 in 3 Americans live in a county hit by a weather disaster in the past three months.”
Fundamentally, politics is about imagination, and when the vitality of democracy morphs into something “inevitable” – well, we must instead face today’s truths and imagine some other options.
Dwell in Possibility: About 8 years ago I went to Chile to guest lecture at a university in Santiago and I asked a friend there to connect me with… everyone! I wanted to meet with the poorest farmers and the richest families. I was blessed with a chance to talk to a true cross-section of the country. Every single person — regardless of age, income, background, etc — was full of anticipation, excitement, possibility: the next few decades were going to be just GREAT for Chile. Of course, everyone had very different ideas about what kinds of policies and approaches were needed – but the sense of possibility was shared across the political spectrum. It was so different from the calcified sense of stasis in the US. Chile believed in the future: the possibility, the true politics at play — ideas, negotiating solutions for a better future.
Now Chile is writing a new constitution – to address climate change, no less! – and elected a thirty-year old president of the country. (Remember my tirade about the average age of America’s political leaders?) To be sure, there are things to be concerned about in Chile – from extreme income inequality to huge environmental issues – but we have something to learn from their political imagination.
Our Media Traps Us: The national mood is shaped by our media, and we’ve got a big problem there. There are two media ecosystems in this country, side-by-side. One spins right-wing propaganda loops, and the other has a bias for negative news. Neither is friendly to possibility and imagination; both are in thrall to “elective emergency and selective war” (to quote Snyder on Putin).
Storytelling delivers audience. The right-wing propaganda media ecosystem has a much larger overall reach than the “mainstream” media. With television (Fox, Sinclair, OANN), talk radio (Cumulus, Dan Bongino), and many, many robust digital properties across social media and podcasts it is the real mainstream media in America:
Fox News dominates prime time ratings -- not just beating CNN and MSNBC, but also beating ABC, CBS, and NBC (even beating Law & Order!).
Daily Wire dominates Facebook and had $65M in revenue in 2020; in top 10 top articles on Facebook every day for the last three years - Daily Wire also produces “documentaries” - many of which get carried by Netflix and other digital platforms.
There are dozens of smaller outfits each of them in the $10M-$25M range, including Newsmax, Project Veritas and WesternJournal.
The right-wing propaganda media ecosystem repeats ad nauseam a handful of meta-stories, squeezing today’s news to fit into one of their preset and familiar frames that reinforces the core political message again and again and again :
Government is the enemy. (The Deep State!)
The white middle class is under attack. (Immigrants are taking your jobs!)
Your religion is under attack. (Socialists!)
You’re not safe. (Black people! Crime! Terrorists!)
Current events are then dropped into these big stories to validate the core messages, reinforcing the message again and again and again. In the right wing media world, these stories are amplified in unison across all available media channels. Meanwhile, the “mainstream” media ecosystem is still primarily driven by market incentives without any narrative coherence and bundles of unintended consequences:
Negative news dominates: “If it bleeds, it leads” has morphed into constant, short-term conflict-centric reporting. While the right wing media ecosystem uses the US retreat from Afghanistan to push a couple meta-narratives (“You’re not safe, the Taliban is coming” and “Government is the enemy, Biden is incompetent”), CNN and the New York Times reflect and reinforce these narratives without taking into account any larger context for their reporting.
The existing mainstream media ecosystem is shrinking: Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States. In the last 6 months, more than 90 local newspapers have closed. Besides closing, outlets are getting purchased by the right-wing media infrastructure: Sinclair Broadcasting has acquired more than 190 local television stations in over 100 markets (covering 40% of American households).
There is no digital equivalent: digital media is dominated by right-wing propaganda with little to no competition provided by traditional media.
Revenge Stories Never Get Old: We desperately need a common narrative that will open up possibilities. It may need to start with a reckoning. Think of this week alone and all the moments in accountability: it started with Elizabeth Holmes convicted of fraud. Marjorie Taylor Greene was deplatformed by Twitter. The murderers of Ahmaud Arbery received life sentences, and even endured a moment of silence in court - to honor just a fraction of the time they pursued Arbery. And the week ended with Biden holding Trump and his fellow Republicans accountable for trying to overthrow the government.
Facing uncomfortable truths, and refusing to let go of the possibility of justice: this is the work we must do. Accountability matters, and it is as strong a narrative as you can find with the good storytelling: from juries in Georgia to the Capitol steps, there are the new sheriffs in town, and everybody has to play by the rules. Of course, this will require the Democrats to also bring accountability to a financial elite run amuck with greed. The other problem is that social media lends itself to a wild, rage-filled mob justice. Accountability only matters if it isn’t selective and if it follows due process.
What is to be done? Do not give in to the politics of inevitability. Do something. Pick something, and go do it. I have championed a renewed focus on our local communities, and I have finally taken my own advice. Over the last few months, I worked with my neighbors to start a local news non-profit to provide reporting on our town. Our online fundraising campaign raised $40,000 from 160 people in town. It’s enough money to pay a full-time reporter for five or six months. Now we’ve got someone calling up the police chief and the school superintendent and the select committee asking questions… to hold power accountable.
Lots of love – Nicco
PS. On the home front, our chaotic corner of suburbia was hit with COVID this week. Most of the members of our household developed mild flu-like symptoms complete with cough and runny nose, testing positive for COVID. But never fear; I remained healthy and I am inexplicably still testing negative despite the number of animals and snot-friendly surfaces in our home. My patients have made a speedy recovery, so much so that I got a detailed critique of the muffins I made for breakfast this morning; one child felt that they were “too salty” while another child felt that they needed “more bananas”. Given the robustness of their complaints about my cooking, I think they’ve fully recovered. I remain in good spirits and look forward to using your replies to this email as a way of avoiding the menial demands of the sick preying on my infinite compassion. I am, of course, reminded of the Australian apartment complex put on COVID lockdown a few weeks ago, limited to a cruel DAILY ration of only “six beers or pre-mixed drinks, one bottle of wine, or one 375ml bottle of spirits,” (absent a doctor’s orders for more). For some reason this also brings to mind my favorite COVID-related news story of 2021: Two men were arrested trying to break into a COVID-locked-down part of New Zealand with $100,000 in cash and what New Zealand police describe as “a large amount” (but anyone in the U.S. would describe as “a normal amount”) of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Call me if you’re quarantined and need any KFC deliveries and I’ll see what I can do.