Divorce, American Style
The fault line cleaving the US literally cuts through families; it won't be resolved by a blue-red breakup. Plus, more on ChatGPT's impact on politics; NY state Dems in disarray; and Schumer's shande.
A week ago, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the far-right conspiracist who has seized a much larger national profile since the House of Representatives switched into Republican hands, shared a revealing thread on Twitter. She proposed that the “left and right should consider a national divorce, not a civil war but a legal agreement to separate our ideological and political disagreements by states while maintaining our legal union.” She claimed to “speak for the right” and said, “we are absolutely disgusted and fed up with the left cramming and forcing their ways on us and our children with no respect for our religion/faith, traditional values, and economic & government policy beliefs.”
Let’s leave aside whether any of her ideas about devolving federal programs, budgets and debts to the states are functionally feasible. She’s arguing that letting red and blue states go their own way on issues like school prayer or trans kids, or allowing people in red states to “not have to abide by climate cult lies” while people in blue states could “own nothing [and] let their government decide and control everything” – that all of this would be good for the whole country. Why? Because “then Americans could choose which way, left or right, provides them with the best quality of life, and we don’t have to argue with one another anymore.”
Writing a few days later in The New York Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie zeroed in (gift link) on a critical problem with Greene’s proposal, which he called “a paranoid fantasy.” And that is her notion, held also by many non-paranoid Americans, that states are singular political communities. As he put it, “A conservative, deep ‘red’ state like Oklahoma still has liberal,’ ’blue’ cities and suburbs with conflicting interests. If you tried to separate conservative rural areas from liberal urban ones, you’d quickly find that within those subdivisions lie profound political differences among both individual people and groups of people…. there’s no way to divide the country so that all Americans live in their own camp, with their own side.”
Obviously, I agree with Bouie. But there’s something important that I also hear in Greene’s complaint. Which is she and her ilk are tired of the conflict and don’t want to “have to argue with one another anymore.” I don’t think we are paying nearly enough attention to how much hyper-partisan polarization is affecting people at a personal level. According to the Pew Research Center, in late 2021, nearly six-in-ten Americans said having political conversations with those they disagree with is “stressful and frustrating,” an increase of almost ten percent from May 2019. Nearly two-thirds say they have political views they’re afraid to share with others, according to a 2020 Cato Institute study. We have to care about this because as the partisan gap widens, people’s willingness to use force against the other side increases. Also, it’s not as if we can stop having political disagreements; politics is by its nature about how we air, navigate and resolve things that we don’t already agree about.
We also should recognize that this fault line in US politics runs through families, across generations and genders. I first saw this up close around 2015-16 among the young adult women from red and purple states who were members of Civic Hall, the community center in Manhattan that I used to run, who were dealing very apprehensively with their families back home. Young people migrate to blue cities like NYC to find opportunity and, in many cases, freedom from more constrictive social settings. At the same time, many retain close ties to their families. Even before Trump was elected, many younger women in particular were talking about how their fathers and uncles were going MAGA. Some talked of helping their mothers get absentee ballots, so they could secretly vote for Hillary. The stresses were, and are, real.
This fault line also runs in another parallel direction, between mothers (and fathers) and their MAGA-curious sons, who are now being exposed to an online diet of misogyny and supremacism purveyed by influencers like Andrew Tate, Joe Rogan, Jordan Stephens and the like. It’s gotten so pervasive that some schools in England are beginning to devote class time to countering Tate’s views, believing that they have contributed to a pervasive culture of sexual harassment among teens. I heard Ryan Busse, the former gun industry executive turned whistleblowing author, give a talk the other day, where he showcased some of the online advertising and media being targeted to men and boys. Just look at some of these images.
The FN SCAR is a rifle used by Special Forces all over the world. The NRA loves it. And on Instagram, boys are being told it will make girls fall for them.
Or consider this ad from POF-USA, which is encouraging young men to buy their guns to be ready for the coming civil war. According to Busse, there are hundreds of such companies producing tens of thousands of marketing posts combining sex, conspiracy-thinking and a twisted kind of patriotism, all aimed at young men. (More on this topic from Busse here, in the Atlantic.)
As far as I know, there aren’t many groups working on healing this fault line. Parents for Peace, a small nonprofit started by Melvin Bledsoe in 2019 after his Carlos was radicalized and attacked a military recruiting office, is a tiny group that offers support for other parents going through similar trauma. Life After Hate has been around a bit longer, and it focuses on helping people leave violent far-right groups. These groups are doing vital work, but they’re mainly addressing the most extreme face of the polarization problem. On the other side of this spectrum, there are a variety of bridging groups, like Urban Rural Action, which has state-centered cross-partisan programs in Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania; or big tent events, like the National Week of Conversation coming up in mid-April. But none speaking directly to families dealing with the widening political divide themselves.
To go back to Greene’s call for a national divorce—it could be that the two sides of America are like an estranged couple and that the only solution is to split. Having listened to some of those Civic Hall members as they struggled with their own family dynamics, I think there’s a different answer. We can face each other and try to talk. I know that in one rural Trump-voting family, the father is now a member of P-FLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) as a result of one daughter coming out to him. Opposition conflict doesn’t have to always escalate.
In her excellent book, High Conflict, journalist Amanda Ripley writes about a fascinating encounter between a group of mostly male conservative rural Michigan Christians and a group of mostly female Jewish New Yorkers who spent time in each other’s communities and homes in the spring of 2018. “Despite everything, in defiance of the entire conflict-industrial complex, they wanted to make sense of each other,” she writes. “It reminded me of the first paradox of conflict all over again. Humans have the capacity to simplify and demonize, but we also crave harmony. We are animated by conflict, and we’re haunted by it. We want out, and we want in.” As strange as it is to write these words, I’d rather hear Marjorie Taylor Greene’s call for a divorce as a cry for help rather than just another example of hyper-partisan trolling.
More on ChatCPT and Politics
--Ezra Klein makes a good point: Since all the Big Tech companies pushing their AI chatbots out want to make money, and the main form of revenue available in the online marketplace is advertising, he asks, “What if Google and Microsoft and Meta and everyone else end up unleashing A.I.s that compete with one another to be the best at persuading users to want what the advertisers are trying to sell?” This could get worse, he notes: “What about when these systems are deployed on behalf of the scams that have always populated the internet? How about on behalf of political campaigns? Foreign governments?” Back in 2016, at a post-election conference on tech and politics, I recall hearing then-Google chairman Eric Schmidt, a big booster of AI, muse about the potential of delivering YouTube ads that would be perfectly tuned to the interests of specific users. This did not seem to be a benign prospect then, and even less so now.
--In Ms. Magazine, Mutale Nkonde of AI for the People points out that racism and sexism will be baked into AI models like ChatGPT so long as they are trained on a corpus of documents in English. “This means the contributions to human history made by women, children and people who speak nonstandard English will be underrepresented.”
--In MIT Technology Review, Melissa Heikkila reports that policy researchers at OpenAI are planning to gather more feedback from the public on how to shape ChatGPT’s modeal, including using surveys or citizen assemblies to discuss what content should be banned. They’re also hoping to eventually deliver customized AI models, so people could use the tool to “generate answers that align with their own politics.” Wonderful, let’s just reinforce our priors with billions in computing power!
--Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, an openly white nationalist social media site, says Christians need their own AI. He writes, “At Gab, we have been experimenting with different AI systems that have popped up over the past year. Every single one is skewed with a liberal/globalist/talmudic/satanic worldview. What if Gab AI Inc builds a Gab .ai (see what I did there?) that is based, has no “hate speech” filters and doesn’t obfuscate and distort historical and Biblical Truth?.... If we don’t build and gain ground now, our enemies will dominate this powerful tool and use it for evil.”
Bonus link: George Washington University’s Project on Ethics in Political Communication is hosting a panel Friday March 10 at 11am ET on “ChatGPT, Ethics and Political Campaigns.”
Ross Barkan has a great article (gift link) in The New York Times Magazine titled “’The Democratic Party in New York is a Disaster,’” looking closely at why the Republican red wave that didn’t materialize nationally in 2022 still managed to swamp a supposedly heavily blue state, resulting in the loss of four House seats and the Democratic House majority. In it, he notes that unlike many other states, in New York the statewide party apparatus functions as “a hollowed-out appendage of the governor” that does little, “if any, work in terms of messaging and turnout.” Amazingly, Barkan reports that, “New Hampshire, a state with roughly half the population of Queens, has a Democratic Party with 16 full-time paid staff members. New York’s has four, according to the state chairman, Jay Jacobs. One helps maintain social media accounts that update only sparingly.”
To his credit, Jacobs did give Barkan an interview, taking a break from his day job running a gaggle of summer camps. In his defense, he argued, “People believe that the state party runs all the campaigns, determines the messaging, does the opposition research for every candidate and, you know, when a candidate anywhere loses, it’s the fault of the state party, and all of that is just not an accurate view of the function of the state party and what we actually do.” Instead, Jacobs said the state party was a “housekeeping organization” and a “coordinating entity” that maintains a voter file for campaigns to use and that establishes campaign offices around election time. He also said he believed it was appropriate for a state party chair to not automatically support the winners of party primaries, comparing the victory of a democratic socialist, India Walton, in a party primary for major of Buffalo in 2020 to the victory of David Duke. “I have to endorse David Duke? I don’t think so.”
Is that a fair description of what a state party should do? Housekeeping, a voter file and some ideological policing? To get some perspective, I asked Martha Laning, the former chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, what she would say about how Jacobs described the role of the party. Laning was a former state senator who ran for party chair in 2015, and served for two terms, handing the reigns to Ben Wikler in 2019. Her tenure was marked by early investments in party-building that Wikler has aggressively expanded; she now runs the State Parties Advancement Network, a movement of progressive donors that supports programs growing party infrastructure in more than 30 states.
After reading Barkan’s article, Laning told me, “That makes my heart hurt.” She added, “Ultimately it comes to this question: Is the Party a tool for the top of the ticket/highest elected official, or is it an organization with members with like values and beliefs committed to building stronger communities where citizens thrive? Clearly, NY has been driven by those that believe the first and true to form - power and greed cause resources to be misallocated and planning to be short-sighted.”
She went on: “The same was true in Wisconsin when I took over in 2015 - but it was much less powerful than what NY has. The gubernatorial candidates were running the party. We worked to build an organization that would help all candidates in time. It is to the benefit of the top of the ticket to have a strong party working all the way down the ticket and in all elections.
“As for a Party Chair not endorsing a nominee - the only way we do that in Wisconsin is IF they are a Republican or if they aren't running a race and we need to get behind the Democrat working to win. Senator Tammy Baldwin had a person claiming they were running but doing nothing so we endorsed Tammy. Sheriff [David] Clark in Milwaukee ran as a Democrat but he was a hardcore Republican, and we voted as a Party not to endorse him. To endorse during a Primary, I had to get county parties asking for the endorsement and then it had to be voted on. These are good practices that NY should adopt but if they are all about power, that is hard to get done.”
Her bottom line: “New York would be a very challenging state to turn.”
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
That’s Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York in Israel last week, embracing Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who is ideologically much closer to Mike Pompeo (who says none of the West Bank is “occupied” territory) than anyone in, say, the Biden State Department. I don’t think there’s anything that could better encapsulate the craven and out-of-date politics of national Democrats than this picture, other than maybe Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ (D-NY) declaration last year, “Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever.” The ground under these positions is rapidly disintegrating, as Bibi’s far-right government moves rapidly toward de jure annexation of the West Bank, Jewish settlers go on rampages against Palestinian towns that Israeli generals and journalists are referring openly to as “pogroms,” and the country’s judiciary is stripped of its independence. Capital, especially from the tech sector, is fleeing the country; the shekel, Israel’s currency, is weakening; and all signs are pointing towards an explosion of violent resistance from Palestinians.
Odds and Ends
—Attend: “Can American Democracy Survive the 2024 Elections?” – An all-day convening (virtual seats still available) at the UCLA School of Law March 17, with a first-rate collection of speakers.
—The SEC is “using existing securities laws to contain the [cryptocurrency] industry and section it off from the rest of the financial system,” David Dayen writes in the American Prospect.
—We still don’t know the whole story of what happened at Data for Progress, an upstart polling and strategy firm, but Kaleigh Rogers sheds a bit more light on cofounder Sean McElwee’s rise and fall here for FiveThirtyEight.
—Bob Master explores labor’s role in defending democracy in the United States for Convergence Magazine, noting that union density tends to line up with blue state politics, but offering some helpful ideas for how unions can do more to educate their members about authoritarian political threats.
I don’t think comedian Richard Belzer, who passed away last week, got enough recognition for how Jewish he was, as this bit about Bob Dylan’s bar mitzvah shows.