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Dear Therapist: My Coworkers Think I’m Rude, and I’m Not Sure How to Change

Posted: 07 Jan 2019 04:00 AM PST

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I recently received some feedback at work, and I'm having trouble adjusting to it. Apparently, some of the things I do at work come off as belittling or arrogant to some of the people I work with. However, I wasn't given any information regarding what exactly I said or did to cause those feelings.

I don't want to do this to anyone, and had no idea that what I was doing was coming off this way. But I feel like without specific feedback, I can't effectively change. I asked for more information, but my supervisor (in the name of anonymity) couldn't tell me much more. As a result, I feel kind of helpless. I want to improve and be a better co-worker, but short of shutting down my personality, I don't really know what to do.

Please help me if you can.

Anonymous
Richmond, Virginia


Dear Anonymous,

This may sound strange, but congratulations! Your supervisor has given you the starting point for what could turn out to be the most helpful conversation not just of your career, but of your life.

Let me explain what I mean by asking you to imagine that this happened not at work, but in a marriage. As you know, in any relationship, feedback is essential. Of course, it's human nature to prefer positive feedback, but in the strongest relationships, both positive and negative feedback—when delivered with good intentions and compassion—are welcomed, because they help us see what we're doing right and learn how we might grow. Moreover, so-called negative feedback is actually a sign that the person values you enough to want to fix any issues.

That said, depending on how we were given feedback growing up, rather than feeling grateful that our partner wants us to stick around, what we may feel is paralyzing shame. Instead of hearing, "This will make our relationship stronger," we may hear, "You're a terrible, unlovable person." Instead of hearing, "Our relationship is worth improving," we may hear, "I want a divorce." And when we hear it that way, we start to feel defensive or terrified or helpless. And then we think, "I don't do that—I'm not arrogant," or "Short of shutting down my personality, I don't really know what to do."

What you heard at work wasn't criticism, but an invitation. Your supervisor wasn't saying, "I don't value you," but "I value many things about you, and this issue is getting in the way, so I'm giving you the opportunity to address it." It's true that in a marriage, you'd get more specific details than your supervisor is permitted to share, but you can nevertheless draw on other experiences to help you think through this.

Here's how. First, you can begin by trying to figure out what you're doing that other people perceive as arrogant or belittling. Arrogance isn't an inborn trait, but one that's developed later as a way to shield ourselves from negative feelings we have. Instead of acknowledging that deep down we feel stupid or incompetent or not good enough, we project those feelings onto others. Ask yourself: Do you become impatient or short with your colleagues if they don't understand something the first time you explain it to them? Do you tout your achievements and fail to praise others because you envy (or believe they're less deserving of) the recognition they get? Do you feel contempt if they choose to go with another idea—one that you consider not as smart as yours? You may not share your feelings directly, but body language is powerful: sighs, grimaces, eye rolls, interruptions, "friendly jokes" at the expense of others, not giving your full attention to people "under" you by glancing at your phone while they're making a presentation, and so on. Think about whether there are moments when you feel entitled—I'm smarter than that person; I'm more important; I know better—and how that attitude might be communicated in subtle ways.

If you don't recognize any of these habits in yourself, ask a trusted family member or friend for feedback. You can say, "Hey, I've heard that sometimes I can be perceived as belittling or arrogant at work, and I want to know why. I'd really appreciate your honesty—have you ever felt that way with me, or seen me act that way with others?" And if you're still friendly with any exes, they'd be excellent sources of information, too.

You can also do some research on arrogance and see if anything resonates. Remember that most of it won't—you clearly have compassion and are open to changing. But something might, even in a small way, and adjusting that behavior could be helpful in setting concrete goals: I'm going to find the good in my co-workers' ideas and present my thoughts without judgment today. I'm going to give each co-worker at least one genuine compliment every week. (This will require you to pay closer attention to what they're doing right, not wrong.)

Finally, when one person perceives another as being arrogant or belittling, often the missing ingredient is empathy. When working with couples, sometimes I'll say, "Before you speak, ask yourself, What is this going to feel like to the person I'm speaking to?" Even without the specific details, your supervisor is asking you to do just that.

It's clear from your letter that you want to treat people kindly, so if you can look for whatever truth there might be in what your supervisor told you—without beating yourself up—you'll learn something important about yourself, something that goes well beyond who you are at work. We all have blind spots, and like it or not, people tend to be pretty consistent across settings. For instance, whatever a patient does with her therapist—avoid difficult topics, elide the truth, position herself as a victim, feel easily injured or misunderstood—nine times out of 10, she does the same thing with others. And while most of us try to be our most professional, appealing selves in our workplaces, our habits and tendencies eventually become apparent. The co-worker who leaves a mess in the kitchen, or hogs the office supplies, or interrupts people during meetings probably does some version of that at home. And, in your case, if you're inadvertently doing something that leaves people feeling belittled, now is a great time to figure out what that is. If you do, you'll find that you're a better person for it—at work, and everywhere else.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

The Supreme Court Could Make Gerrymandering Worse

Posted: 07 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

The Supreme Court's decision on Friday to take up partisan gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Maryland brought to mind a saying attributed to Judy Garland: Behind every cloud is another cloud.

The now-firmly conservative Court likely took the cases not to announce that such activities violate the Constitution, but to reverse the lower courts that said they do. Down the road, the Court may do much more damage, including by preventing states from using independent commissions to draw congressional districts.

For years, the Supreme Court has ducked the question of partisan redistricting, failing to provide clear guidance on its constitutionality. Until he left the Court this summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy was the key swing vote on this issue. In 2004, he disagreed with conservatives that such cases present "political questions" which courts cannot hear given the lack of "judicially manageable standards." And he disagreed with liberals that any as-yet proposed standards adequately separated permissible from impermissible consideration of partisan information in drawing district lines. But he suggested that the First Amendment's right of association could serve as the foundation of a ruling against gerrymandering.

Justice Elena Kagan took Kennedy up on that suggestion in a case the Court (sort of) decided last term, Gill v. Whitford. Plaintiffs argued that Wisconsin Republicans had drawn district lines to give them asymmetrical advantage over Democrats in state legislative elections. The Court in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts unanimously dismissed the case on standing grounds, sending it back to the lower court for further proceedings. But Kagan, in a concurrence joined by three other liberals, set forth a First Amendment, associational-injury theory of partisan gerrymandering that was designed to appeal to Kennedy. Kennedy did not bite and soon retired from the Court.

Although Kennedy's replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, did not decide any gerrymandering cases as a lower court judge, his general disposition lines him up with the other conservatives on the Court who believe that the judiciary has no business policing gerrymandering. In the Maryland and North Carolina cases the Court just took, both lower courts were willing to act as the police. Due to a procedural quirk, a decision by the Supreme Court not to hear these cases would have counted as an acknowledgment that the lower courts got the question right. So there's every reason to expect 5-4 reversals unless a conservative justice or two goes rogue, or gets cold feet.

That's not the only cloud on the horizon when it comes to the Court and redistricting. In a 2015 case out of Arizona, as I explained in more detail in a blog post for the Harvard Law Review, Kennedy joined in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion holding that voters have the right to use a ballot initiative to establish independent redistricting commissions. But the Arizona legislature convinced Roberts—along with three conservatives—that because the Constitution gives the power to set congressional election rules to state "legislatures," voters acting through the initiative process had unlawfully usurped legislative power. Roberts wrote an impassioned dissent.

A case raising this question could come back before the Court soon enough from one of the other states that has established these commissions. And, should Roberts choose to spend his capital in this way, he could well reverse the Court's very recent precedent.

This development would be profoundly troubling. It is one thing for federal courts to say that they have no business deciding how much politics is too much politics when state legislatures draw district lines. It is quite another to say that the voters of a state, acting through the powers they have under state constitutions, cannot come in and offer a solution to deal with an area of intense legislative self-interest. The Court would be ruling, in effect, that legislators may choose their voters, not the other way around, and that there's nothing voters can do about it.

Yet one more cloud in the districting arena: The Trump administration is enmeshed in a legal struggle, headed to the Supreme Court, over its attempt to put a question about citizenship status on the 2020 census. According to the Department of Justice, the question will help it enforce the Voting Rights Act. But opponents believe that the question will depress census responses in areas with large populations of undocumented residents, and thereby lower representation for these areas. (The Court will hear a case in February over whether plaintiffs can force Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and a Justice Department official to testify as to the government's true motive in adding the citizenship question.)

If the Trump administration gets its way on the census, one problem will lead to another: A recent Commerce Department notice stated that it would provide citizenship information to jurisdictions that wanted to use the data to draw new district lines after the next census. It's not clear if that's constitutional. In 2016, in Evenwel v. Abbott, the Court left open the question of whether states and localities must draw legislative districts with equal numbers of people—the traditional method—or of people eligible to vote. If the Court ends up favoring the latter standard, that would shift power away from cities and Democratic areas with larger noncitizen populations.

Ultimately, a citizenship question on the census could depress response rates in Democratic areas, reduce representation in Democratic areas, and lower population-related federal resources coming to these areas.

These days, no one expects the Supreme Court to lead the way on political reform. But it could do much worse than nothing; it could actually stymie political reform when it works its way through the democratic process.

Ocasio-Cortez and the Future of Instagram Politics

Posted: 07 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

The bully pulpit is getting smaller. Open your phone, and there's Democratic rock star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected representative from New York, live-streaming on Instagram as she whips up some Mac-n-Cheese. Now it's a video of maybe-presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke pouring a batter of "slime" with his daughter on a well-lit kitchen island. Now it's Senator Elizabeth Warren, who recently announced she would run for president, making straight-to-camera small talk, as she pulls from a beer bottle on Instagram Live.

This is the future of political rhetoric: handheld, streaming, and dappled with DIY lighting.

Politicians pressing the record button as they futz about the kitchen might seem like a pitiful degradation of political communication; from "four score and seven years ago" to four scoops of seven-grain bread dough. But as silly as it sounds, the rise of live-streams and clapback memes is just the latest step in the long evolution of political speech. In the last century, such speech has became ever-more casual as it has migrated from soapboxes to smartphones. Politicians that have mastered the patois of new platforms have consistently held an advantage over opponents who failed to appreciate the power of those technologies.

[Read: The silent power of live-streaming politics]

Politics is downstream from culture, and political culture is downstream from media technology. The way the public consumes political speech affects the substance of the speech.

To take things all the way back, George Washington's first inaugural address began like so:

Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the fourteenth day of the present month.

Practically no commoner would have understood Washington's wordy preamble. But he had little reason to care, since practically no commoner would have even heard it. The address was delivered—or mumbled, reportedly—at Federal Hall in New York City, to an elite and overwhelmingly white and male audience, who presumably shared Washington's penchant for impenetrable diction.

As late as 1900, the typical presidential speech employed college-level complexity. By the 1930s, that complexity had fallen to high-school level, and today, presidential speeches are simple enough for sixth graders. That's according to a recent study that analyzed hundreds of presidential speeches from Washington to Obama with the Flesch-Kincaid test, a U.S. Navy measure used to code the readability of military instruction manuals. More specifically, presidential rhetoric suddenly shed its sesquipedalian sheen in the early 1900s. Er, it got simple real quick.

What happened? Twin revolutions in American suffrage and communications tech. In 1913, the U.S. added a 17th Amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators; and in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. Over the next decade, a new invention, the radio, entered more than 50 percent of U.S. households, allowing presidents to reach audiences several orders of magnitude larger (and more diverse) than they were used to. As the electorate become more populous, political speech become more populist.

[Read: The American idea in 140 characters]

Since the turn of the 20th century, successful presidents have recognized that mastering emerging communications technology was central to reaching potential voters, and therefore to their political fortunes. The first radio address was delivered by Calvin Coolidge on Dec. 6, 1923. The New York Times estimated that 1 million Americans heard the speech, predicting that Silent Cal's voice "will be heard by more people than the voice of any man in history." But it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who realized that radio's power wasn't sheer amplification. It was something more subtle: intimacy at scale. His fireside chats helped endear him to a populace on the brink of economic ruin. Similarly, while Dwight Eisenhower was the first president of the television age, it was the telegenic John F. Kennedy who dominated the medium by proving that when it comes to video, every contest is, at least in part, a beauty contest.

In the 21st century, many people have cut the cord and switched from pay TV to social media as their main source of news and entertainment. Trump's laconic insults and monosyllabic yelps proved a perfect match for Twitter. Now we're seeing what sort of political performances are the right fit for Instagram, which has an even larger reach.

Unlike television, YouTube and Instagram aren't natural homes for the most glitzy, high-production-value performances. As with radio, their power is intimacy at scale. Many of the most successful YouTube and Instagram influencers are masters of slangy verisimilitude. The message is: "Watch me, and see a version of yourself."

Ocasio-Cortez may be to the left of the 2019 electorate, but her Instagram activity tells the single most conventional American story: upward mobility. Some politicians would require a phalanx of writers and marketing experts to communicate a personal narrative as clear as the one Ocasio-Cortez conjures with nothing but a smartphone: A young Latina woman goes from bartender to congressional superhero while remaining true to her cheap-pasta roots. With more than one million followers on both Instagram and Twitter, she doesn't rely on the machinery of the Democratic Party or cable news networks to reach a large audience. If JFK and Reagan were television stars, social-media-savvy politicians like Ocasio-Cortez have a chance to become something more: a television network, with the ability to program around both the news media and the party apparatus.

[Read: How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's plain black jacket became a controversy]

Politicians of all stripes now have an opportunity to turn their smartphones into production studios of personal glorification. But just as not all presidents have been equally talented on radio and TV, not all politicians come to live-streaming with aplomb. (Among the vicissitudes incident to life, imagine the anxieties that the requirement to transmit by Insta would have given George Washington.) Warren's foray into kitchen live-streaming was less than fluent. "I'm gonna get me … um, a beer," Warren said in her last video, before disappearing off-camera, where she seemed to spontaneously discover a surprise visitor: her spouse. "Oh, hey. My husband Bruce is here." Bruce entered from stage right, waved demurely, and slid quickly back out of frame, with the enthusiasm of a young child dragged against his will to speak on the phone to a distant relative.

It's tempting to say Warren simply goofed by making a shoddy video. But the truth is more complex. New communications protocols don't just change the way politicians speak; they change the way voters evaluate political speech and, by extension, the portfolio of talents that voters seek in a leader. The age of television rewarded the skill of capturing an audience from a podium. But politicians who thrive on social media will have to master a different suite of skills, like mimicking the Internet's more naturalistic, self-aware style in a medium where the distance between star and viewer is closed, and where everybody is conscious of themselves as a collective audience.

Is instagram politics good for democracy? Who knows. Ocasio-Cortez, a preternaturally gifted digital communicator, has already used her star power for uncommon ends, from gleefully skewering Republicans to tweeting about how a Harvard orientation for incoming lawmakers turned out to be a lobbyist meet-and-greet. To her fans, she is an unvarnished idealist exposing the government from within—like a muckraker who's been named to the board of a meatpacking plant. By casting herself as Washington's in-house critic, she could increase public understanding of the place and inspire young leftists to join her in the fight to fix a broken system. Her tweets and messages about legislative meetings offer a rare, almost documentarian glimpse of Washington's back-room operations. That could give voters a sense of participation in a system they no longer trust.

But the age of smartphone politics could pave the way for a new crop of demagogues who are as adept at mimicking "intimacy at scale" as the 20th century autocrats were at captivating crowds from a podium. As the performance of honesty becomes more central to campaigning and governance, it could magnify already unhealthy debates over authenticity. Horserace coverage would merge with theatrical criticism, diminishing political discussion to the asking and re-asking of the same fundamental, unfalsifiable question: But are they real? But are they real? But are they real?

When America Stared Into the Abyss

Posted: 07 Jan 2019 03:00 AM PST

The Treasury secretary's voice exuded tension and urgency. "A very serious situation is developing," Henry Paulson warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the phone. "Nothing we can say will calm the situation until we come up with a policy that is overwhelming force!" Later that Thursday afternoon, Pelosi received the same dire message when she telephoned Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke; financial markets were seizing up, major Wall Street firms were on the brink of collapse, and the nation's economy hovered perilously on the edge of an abyss. Pelosi recalls asking, alarmed, "If things are this bad, why aren't you calling me?"

Paulson and Bernanke urgently requested the speaker to convene the bicameral congressional leadership to hear the George W. Bush administration's proposed response to the rapidly accelerating crisis. Pelosi agreed to call a meeting the next day. That might be too late, Bernanke cautioned. Indeed, without swift action, there might not be an American economy by the end of the weekend.

Ten years ago this past September, financial markets imploded, threatening to collapse the entire U.S. economy and setting off an extraordinary, and improbable, collaboration between the deeply divided Congress and the Bush administration. Prospects for successful cooperation were inauspicious: a highly partisan atmosphere, significant divisions within each party, deep suspicions of the administration's credibility, displeasure over Bush's indifferent record on regulating the financial-services industry, and a national election just six weeks away. And yet, remarkably, a political system widely castigated as dysfunctional proved capable of passing an enormously expensive, complex, and contentious piece of legislation that prevented a second Great Depression. As a senior aide to Pelosi, I had an opportunity to witness both the unfolding of the crisis and the private discussions and negotiations that saved the American economy from the worst meltdown since the 1930s. As a historian, I fortunately recorded on legal pads those private conversations as they unfolded, revealing the strategies, tensions, and interactions that allowed political rivals and adversaries to avoid the abyss. I have given those notes to the Library of Congress. This article marks the first time those discussions have been revealed.

The remedy devised in two weeks, without the typically expansive committee deliberations that would have accompanied such a massive piece of legislation, was the Troubled Assets Relief Program. TARP was by no means a perfect, popular, or thorough response to the overall economic crisis. Many critics of TARP remain bitter at the lack of criminal prosecutions for misbehavior by executives in the securities industry. Indeed, for Americans of varying ideologies, TARP was not a solution but indisputable evidence of what was wrong with American politics. Still, 10 years later, it remains remarkable that a divided, distrusting, and often dysfunctional political system was able to fashion such a complex, if imperfect, response to the crisis. And that success raises the question of how today's even more fractured and contentious system might respond should a comparable crisis occur.

The financial-services industry, as well as the political and regulatory systems designed to oversee it, had long ignored the gathering storm. In the 30 years before the crisis, the amount of debt held by the financial sector skyrocketed from $3 trillion to more than $36 trillion, "more than doubling as a share of gross domestic product," according to the national commission appointed to investigate the origins of the collapse. Wealth had become hyperconcentrated in firms considered "too big to fail" without bringing down the entire economy. By 2005, the country's 10 largest commercial banks held 55 percent of the nation's assets, more than twice the concentration of a decade and a half earlier. In 2006, the profits of financial-sector corporations represented 27 percent of all corporate profits in the United States, nearly double the concentration in 1980.

Underneath the booming profits, however, was dangerous rot. Five of the largest firms—Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley—had become dangerously over-leveraged. Bear Stearns had less than $12 billion in equity, with more than $380 billion in liabilities, leading up to its collapse in March 2008. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had a leveraged ratio of 75 to 1. By mid-September, as Lehman Brothers and the giant insurance corporation American International Group teetered on failure, many of the nation's largest financial houses were saddled with hundreds of billions of dollars in toxic paper.

The commission appointed by Congress in 2009 to investigate the causes of the meltdown concluded that it "was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire." A "combination of excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency put the financial system on a collision course with crisis." And perhaps most tellingly, the commissioners determined, the crisis had been "avoidable."

[Read: How Wall Street's bankers stayed out of jail]

In the leadership meeting Pelosi convened after her phone calls with Bernanke and Paulson, the Federal Reserve chairman described a "very severe financial crisis—hundreds of billions in losses." The administration was forced to turn to Congress, Bernanke declared, because the Fed was "no longer able to use the tools we have to maintain stability. It is a matter of days," the chairman warned, before "a major meltdown [would occur] in the United States and globally." Paulson agreed. "I've never seen anything like it," he said. "Once in 100 years."

Congress would have to authorize the Treasury to purchase the toxic assets. "If we don't deal with it by next week, the country could collapse," Paulson warned. The alternative, Bernanke predicted, was a "deep, long recession." Congressional leaders, many of whom considered the two financial managers politically naive and partly responsible for the unfolding catastrophe, were stunned. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked how much the purchase would cost. "Hundreds of billions," Paulson admitted, and even then, it was inevitable that widespread foreclosures would cost millions of Americans their homes.

Democratic leaders immediately seized on the strategy of using Wall Street's crisis to benefit millions of Americans on "Main Street" who were seeing their homes, savings, and jobs evaporate without generating any comparable urgent response. Congress had negotiated with Paulson and the Bush administration a meager $168 billion stimulus bill in February, but the law had minimal impact on the worsening recession. Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York insisted that something like Paulson and Bernanke's audacious proposal could only secure Democratic votes if it included billions of dollars in anti-recessionary spending to promote job creation, extend unemployment assistance, and fund other initiatives to reduce the "perception the bill is a [corporate] bailout." Barney Frank, the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, also demanded restrictions on the exorbitant executive-compensation packages of financial-services companies to help secure the needed votes.

The administration and congressional Republicans reacted negatively to these efforts to expand the scope of the legislation. "We won't get there if you take that approach," Paulson admonished. The House Republican leader, John Boehner, agreed, advising the Democrats, "Don't play politics." Other Republicans raised their own concerns. Dick Shelby, the senior Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, skeptically described the administration's proposal as "a blank check." Reid explained that Democrats would also face challenges rounding up votes without incentives. "It's political reality," Reid declared in defense of the additional spending. Without the anti-recessionary provisions, Frank advised, "I can't tell you the bill will pass." After a tense moment, Paulson glumly responded, "Then God help us."

The very short deadline for enacting the bill created additional tensions. "If you think the U.S. Senate will give you $500 billion next week," Reid said, "that's not happening! … Your timeline is unrealistic!" The majority leader knew that under Senate rules, he would need a 60-vote, bipartisan supermajority to pass such legislation, a tall order just weeks before a third of the Senate—along with the entire House—would face voters. "We can't just take your word. We need [to conduct] hearings. It takes two weeks to pass a bill to flush a toilet" in the Senate, Reid said. "Well, if we don't do this," Paulson testily responded, "we are flushing the toilet on the American people."

The challenge confronting Congress was complicated by another imminent deadline. At the same time the members of the House and Senate were being asked to pass a $700 billion TARP bill, they would have to approve a continuing resolution (CR)—also costing hundreds of billions of dollars—to keep the government open and operating after the beginning of the 2009 fiscal year on October 1. Although no connection between the two existed in Paulson's view, the link was clear to key congressional leaders. "Paulson needs to understand there is nothing [on TARP] without an agreement on the CR!" cautioned Dave Obey, the House Appropriations chairman.

Not satisfied with speaking only to Paulson, Pelosi called President Bush the next day, their first conversation in months. She detailed the additional provisions she needed for "selling [the bill] to the American people," not to mention to her own members. House liberals were also demanding independent oversight of the financial-services industry and tighter rules on fraud. Even Representative Ellen Tauscher, a former stockbroker, insisted on including significant reforms in corporate governance. "Let's get it done" as soon as possible, Bush noncommittally responded, endorsing a "simple and lean" approach, but Pelosi refused to back down. "We need to get as much as we can," she informed the president.

Pelosi knew she could not win liberal votes if she were perceived to be caving to Bush or the financial interests; indeed, the affluent speaker was rankled that she, like Bush, was being castigated for promoting a bailout "for our Wall Street friends." She vigorously condemned the combination of "cowboy capitalism" that ran rampant in the financial firms as well as the Bush administration's "anything goes" style of regulation that she blamed for engendering the crisis. "We are in this situation," the speaker insisted, "… because no one has been watching the store." Indeed, numerous leading Republicans (including Paulson and the presidential nominee John McCain) had asserted the soundness of the nation's economy, although mortgage-related fraud had grown 20 times in the decade following 1996, and doubled again from 2005 to 2009. Even in September 2008, Paulson was still professing confidence that the chaos in the emerging subprime mortgage market could be controlled, and that the irresponsible behavior of a few on Wall Street was "undermining our otherwise sound financial institutions."

It was evident to all that no bill could pass without bipartisan support, a tall order in the highly polarized Congress; on the eve of the election, neither party could afford to bear sole responsibility for what would undoubtedly prove an unpopular piece of legislation. Pelosi told Boehner that he would have to produce 100 votes from his conference, and that she would deliver the remainder. But House Republicans were deeply divided by the proposal from their own administration, and Boehner was skeptical that he could meet Pelosi's demand—a sentiment he expressed on numerous occasions. "My people are looking for a reason not to support" the bill, he told her. If the bill included the Democrats' anti-recessionary wish list, Boehner added in another conversation, "my people will run away." He complained that he was receiving little help from other House Republican leaders and told Pelosi and Paulson the president was "in hiding." Many in his caucus were even skeptical of the severity of the crisis, while others were content to let the financial firms fail. Wary of his ability to produce enough votes for a bailout bill, Boehner told Paulson to "cool your jets." Boehner's chief of staff and close confidante, Paula Nowakowski, said at the time that the minority leader was contemplating asking Bush to "hit the reset button" by creating a committee to study the crisis before passing legislation.

Administration negotiators were also exasperated by a plethora of conservative-generated TARP alternatives, including one from Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor that would have substituted a federal insurance plan for the bailout. Paulson dismissed these alternatives as "pretty ridiculous" and focused on crafting the legislation with Democrats. Meanwhile, on the Senate side of the Capitol, Paulson was "laying an egg" with the Senate Finance Committee, a top Boehner aide confided in me. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten told Democratic leaders their Republican counterparts were "horrid," according to Reid, and Obama quoted Bush as having declared, "My problem is House Republicans." According to a senior White House staffer, neither Senator Shelby nor the ranking member Spencer Bachus of Alabama was being helpful. The obstinacy of Bachus, said Paulson, was "disgraceful."

Reid was flabbergasted to hear that even McCain was leaning against the bill. "We can't pass a bill unless 80 percent of Republicans vote for it," he told Pelosi, who called McCain's opposition "just pathetic." When McCain called Pelosi on September 24 to complain about the pace of the discussions, Pelosi sharply rebuked him. "We are making progress," she said. "It is not accurate to say otherwise." McCain then proposed a suspension of the presidential campaign and the convening of a bipartisan White House summit to hash out a legislative agreement. Pelosi was concerned that a White House meeting would cause delays. When Bolten called to invite her to attend the meeting, the speaker reproached him for capitulating to McCain's "political stunt." She instructed Paulson, "Tell the president to lead! … I will not allow Congress to look like it's in disarray!" Later in the meeting, she reminded him, "The president never listened to us on Iraq … He never broaches disagreement." Unless Bush embraced the TARP design they had fashioned together, she told the Treasury secretary, "we have wasted our time, and it is an insult to you." Sardonically, Paulson noted, "I'm beyond that point."

Schumer thought McCain's suggestion was "just weird," especially coming from someone who had offered little "except for an occasional, unhelpful statement, sort of thrown [in] from far away." The Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, was similarly skeptical of the meeting, which might force the postponement of his first debate with McCain, but he was also wary of rejecting the kind of invitation he might soon as president extend to congressional leaders. "We've got him boxed in … We have him on the ropes," Obama said. "If we didn't go, it would be a bad precedent," he told Reid and Pelosi. They unenthusiastically decided to participate, and decided Obama would serve as their leader. However, they agreed, there would be no deal-making at the meeting, and the exit statement to the press would emphasize that it was the Republicans who needed to "get their ducks in a row."

[Read: The never-ending foreclosure]

"We've got a serious economic crisis," Bush declared to the participants around the enormous oval table in the Cabinet Room. "This meeting is an attempt to reach agreement quickly. I can't tell you how important it is to get something done." He cautioned against loading up the bailout with controversial provisions that could jeopardize passage, but he also signaled flexibility, adding that if Paulson and Bernanke signed off, "we're for it. You damn sure don't want to be the people who see it crater." He made, I recall, a point of singling out Pelosi for her collaboration with administration officials.

Obama's opening statement focused on the proposal under negotiation, while Boehner and Bachus again floated alternative approaches. Their ideas, like the insurance scheme, drew sharp rebukes from Frank and Reid, who accused the Republicans of leading negotiators "down a primrose path" only to throw up obstacles at the last minute. As the parties parried, Bush became increasingly restless. "It's easy for smart guys to sit around," he said, but "if money isn't loosened up, this sucker could go down." Although he had proposed the meeting, McCain remained silent for nearly an hour. A CNN reporter confidentially disclosed to me later that McCain's campaign staff had feared that his presence in the meeting could be "political dynamite," and a Boehner staff person privately expressed to me deep concern at the nominee's lack of preparation, admitting he had requested staff assistance from Boehner only the day before the meeting.

After nearly every other principal had spoken, Obama turned to his rival. "We need to hear from John," he declared, and all heads turned to the silent senator. McCain awkwardly stumbled through a rambling statement, thanking Bush for convening the meeting and declaring his support for the concerns expressed by other Republicans. Puzzled looks flew around the Cabinet Room.

Bush leaned over to the speaker then and whispered something in her ear.

Later, in the car returning to the Capitol from the meeting, Pelosi told me that Bush had said, "I told you you'd miss me when I am gone!"

"No," Pelosi had dryly responded, "I won't."

After McCain concluded, vacuously urging, "concerns must be addressed," Obama snapped, "That's not an answer!"

"I don't know what your proposals are," pressed Frank.

Even Bush threw up his hands, declaring, "I don't know what the hell they are!"

As the meeting broke up, McCain awkwardly edged past Obama, Reid, Pelosi, and staff people who were clustered in the narrow corridor leading to the West Wing reception area. Concerned that their discussion might be overheard, we moved into the nearby Roosevelt Room. Obama's communications chief, Robert Gibbs, began sketching out a summary to offer the waiting press, who quickly reported that the meeting had been inconsequential.

Suddenly, I recall, the door opened, and a harried Paulson strode into the room. Quickly moving to Pelosi, he fell to one knee and solemnly bowed his head as though meeting a religious leader. He begged her not to "blow this thing up."

Stunned by the scene, Pelosi tried to lighten the mood. "Why, Hank, I didn't know you were Catholic!" she exclaimed to nervous laughter.

Afterward, Nowakowski told me the Republican leader was displeased with the outcome of the White House meeting and furious with Paulson for seemingly siding with Democrats against the GOP proposals. Perhaps, she mused, Pelosi should "start thinking" about a bill that could pass with only Democratic votes. Confidentially, a top White House aide admitted that Boehner's conference was filled with "hardheads" and that the meeting had been awful, "chaos … typical of McCain world," allowing others to "outmaneuver him." I recall one Republican aide telling me, "The only person in the room who looked presidential was your guy," Obama.

[Read: Did Christianity cause the crash?]

Democrats continued to insist on adding provisions, such as restricting executive compensation, that Republicans and some of their own Wall Street leaders, such as the former Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, opposed. But Pelosi was unwilling to bargain away a provision with widespread caucus appeal. "No one gets out alive without dealing with compensation," she said. "It's the only issue the American people understand."

One cautious voice was raised among the Democratic leaders about the additional spending. Obama not only was hesitant to inflate the cost of the TARP bill or jeopardize its passage, but also did not want to prematurely pass a stimulus that he was hoping might serve as an early success for his likely administration in 2009.

On one key point, however, Democrats were united and unshakable. Companies that received TARP funding must agree to fully repay taxpayers, with interest, a stipulation remarkably absent in Paulson's original three-page draft. Deficit-conscious conservatives in both parties were sympathetic to that goal of repayment, but questioned how any shortfall would be covered.

During a drafting session in the office of House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, the Senate's combative Republican negotiator, Senator Judd Gregg, insisted funds not repaid by the companies be made up by reductions in domestic spending, which had played no part in creating the crisis. As the Pelosi staffer delegated to negotiating this section of the bill, I quickly dismissed Gregg's proposal as totally unacceptable to the speaker, prompting a heated exchange between the two of us. Though I couldn't write down his remarks in the moment, I remember them well. "You're not listening to me!" Gregg exploded as other participants gaped. "Well, Senator, you're not listening to me," I replied, thoroughly enjoying a public spat with a hard-line senator.

Finally, I suggested, "Why don't you go down the hall to the speaker's office and see what she thinks of your idea to cut domestic spending?" With the Democrats chortling, Gregg testily strode off to pitch the idea to the speaker, returning a few minutes later, after what must have been a brief and very unsatisfactory conversation. "Okay, that isn't going to work," he acknowledged. Ultimately, the bill included a requirement that should a shortfall remain after five years, the president would be required to submit a plan to Congress to ensure that the program "does not add to the deficit or national debt." (In fact, according to ProPublica, the government ended up making $31 billion in profit on its TARP investments.)

[Read: This sociological theory explains why Wall Street is rigged for crisis]

Paulson was inexperienced in the time-consuming gyrations of congressional negotiations and frustrated by the pace of the meetings. "People are just jammering … it's going slower than I would like," he complained. "I don't want to be Andrew Mellon!" he told Pelosi, referring to Herbert Hoover's despised Treasury secretary, who presided over the stock-market crash that preceded the Great Depression. Meanwhile, Boehner was struggling to sell the bill to Republicans. Despite the addition of what Bachus described as "ornaments" to assuage his conference, Boehner admitted to Pelosi and Paulson that there might be as few as 30 Republican votes—less than a third of his designated quota. "I can't put enough lipstick on it to sell it," he explained. He made a final effort at alternative approaches, including business-tax cuts, but Paulson and Pelosi responded coolly. Pelosi worried that reports of the inconclusive White House meeting had weakened her own vote count, which she believed was stuck below 110. Moreover, the public reaction remained ominously negative. Reid reported that his office had received 5,000 calls opposing the TARP plan, and only 20 in support.

Pragmatists at the White House moved in to take the upper hand in negotiations. On September 27, Representative Rahm Emanuel, a top Pelosi and Obama lieutenant, told Josh Bolten, "It's time to call in the political play."

Bolten responded, "Speaking as a political hack, I say, 'Hallelujah!'"

But finalizing the details of the bill was only one of the challenges facing the leaders in both houses. When Reid and Pelosi met to discuss the parliamentary maneuvering that would be required to pass the bill, Reid dourly complained (as he often did) about the circuitous route—as many as nine time-consuming votes—Senate rules might require to secure passage. By contrast, he blithely estimated, Pelosi might secure as many as 300 votes in favor of the bill in the House.

An exasperated Pelosi knew she lacked anything approaching that number, and protested that the filibuster rules with which Reid had to contend left her "angry at the Senate." Not to be outdone, Reid asserted, "I'm angry at the Senate." He told her he might have to cut some deals she might find offensive to secure the 60 votes he would need. "You can't be a virgin if … " he began, but Pelosi waved him off.

"You don't have to go any further," she admonished.

[Read: Those who don't learn from financial crises are doomed to repeat them]

Unease hung over the House chamber as the debate began on September 29. Blunt advised Pelosi, "Don't count on the Republicans," while Nowakowski advised that some Republicans would undoubtedly "beat their chests" in opposition. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Paulson, and Bernanke continued to call House members, the White House liaison Dan Meyer reported, but there might be only 75 Republican votes for the bill. He asked for additional time to convince recalcitrant Republicans, but Pelosi, worried that her own members might begin to drift away, insisted that the vote go forward.

In a leadership meeting, Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn confidentially predicted that only half of the Democrats' 235 members would support the bill, but far fewer if the Republicans produced only 75 of their own. Pelosi dispatched Barney Frank to meet with skeptical Democratic factions, including the liberal Hispanic and Black Caucuses, and the conservative Blue Dogs. Steeling himself for the onslaught of complaints, Frank asked, "When is the Asshole Caucus, and do I have to address them?"

Shortly after the New York stock market had opened that morning, Citigroup announced it was taking over the failing Wachovia Bank, and several central banks announced plans to shore up the credit markets. Neither action prevented the Dow from beginning a precipitous decline, a worrisome backdrop to the debate. In her statement in support of the bill on the House floor, Pelosi acknowledged, "We have a situation where on Wall Street, people are flying high. They are making unconscionable amounts of money. They make a lot of money. They privatize the gain. The minute things go tough, they nationalize the risk … they drive their firm into the ground, and the American people have to pick up the tab. Something is very, very wrong with this picture."

She castigated Bush for squandering the $5.6 trillion surplus bequeathed him by President Bill Clinton on unpaid wars, tax cuts, and a Medicare expansion. "No regulation" and "fiscal irresponsibility, combined with an 'anything goes' economic policy, has taken us to where we are today," she asserted. Now, she assured the skeptics in her caucus, "the party is over." She promised that "before long, we will have a new Congress, a new president of the United States, and we will be able to take our country in a new direction."

In his floor speech, Jerry Lewis, a well-respected Southern California Republican, offered a rationale for his recalcitrant fellow conservatives to support the bill. "Frankly, I'm furious," he admitted. "The idea of spending taxpayer dollars to prop up risky investments keeps me awake at night. It goes against all the principles I have lived by." But there was little choice. "Doing nothing will cause a potential catastrophe."

[Read: Economists' tribal thinking]

The toughest selling job fell to Boehner, who had privately described the bill to Republicans as a "crap sandwich, but I'm going to eat it anyway." His voice cracking as he spoke in the well of the House chamber, his cheeks streaked with the tears, he acknowledged, "Nobody wants to vote for this, nobody wants to be anywhere around it … I didn't come here to vote for bills like this. But let me tell you this, I believe Congress has to act." He pleaded with members on both sides of the aisle: "What's in the best interest of our country? Not what's in the best interest of our party [or] our own reelection." His earnest plea received tepid applause, and then it was time to vote.

As the seconds ticked down on the 15-minute clocks flanking the chamber, it became evident that the bipartisan entreaties and White House pressure had failed. The bill was defeated by a vote of 205–228, a rare loss on the floor for Pelosi. Nearly 60 percent of Democrats (140 out of 235) voted "yea," compared with just 33 percent of Republicans (65 of 198). Bush, who had called all 19 Republican members of his Texas delegation, had persuaded just four to support the bill. One of the Texas dissenters, Jeb Hensarling, denounced TARP as the first step "on the slippery slope to socialism."

Anxiety over the fast-approaching election played a significant role in the defeat. Of 18 members in "toss-up" races, 15 voted against the bill, including all six freshman Democrats facing tight campaigns. Some voiced skepticism about the accuracy of the administration's description of the crisis, recalling the misleading information provided Congress about weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the war in Iraq. Many in the Hispanic and Black Caucuses proved unwilling to explain to their economically suffering constituents the massive spending for Wall Street, particularly since the bill contained little of what Democrats had sought for the jobless and those at risk of losing their homes.

In the cloakroom, stunned members watched the Dow Jones average plunge sharply lower. When the final vote was announced, the bottom fell out. Within minutes, the market had lost nearly 700 points off its opening, ending 778 points lower for the day, a record one-day point loss. By day's end, $1.2 trillion in IRAs, pension funds, and savings was gone—nearly twice the size of the bailout package itself. The VIX index that chronicled market volatility, the so-called fear index, closed at the highest level in its 28-year history.

Some Republicans pointed to the partisan nature of Pelosi's floor speech to explain their "no" votes. The combative Cantor blamed Pelosi's "failure to listen and failure to lead" for turning Republicans against the legislation. The normally calm House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, who often touted his ability to work across the aisle with Cantor, uncharacteristically exploded, "I can't believe the audacity of that SOB!"

Other Republicans dismissed the allegation that Pelosi's remarks were irresponsible. Blunt told Hoyer that Pelosi's speech should not be "a big issue." I recall that California's Mary Bono minimized the impact of the speaker's remarks, telling me she was disgusted with colleagues who were putting party over country. Frank denounced the Republicans' "level of pettiness," paraphrasing their argument as "Speaker Pelosi talked badly, so screw the country!" But Republicans also pointed their fingers at liberal opponents, such as some in the Black Caucus who had cast votes against the bill. Pelosi was infuriated at the Republicans' scapegoating of black members. "I would kick someone in the teeth if they said that," she said. Emanuel, serving as an Obama liaison to the House, offered to have the nominee call disgruntled minority members to turn around their votes for the next effort.

For her part, Pelosi pointed her finger at Bush and the Republicans, whom she termed "dysfunctional." "The Republicans did not honor their commitment, [and] we all look bad," she asserted. "The president has no shtick," she complained to Paulson. "What is going on in the Republican caucus to let the United States suffer this blow?" She counseled the White House's Dan Meyer, "There isn't another vote [for the bill] in our caucus" unless something on the order of a $65 billion stimulus was added, but Meyer predicted that such additions would only further diminish Republican support. "You don't know that!" Pelosi protested, but she agreed for the moment to back off her effort to load up the bill, and even dismissed suggestions from an influential friend, the financier George Soros. "Everyone's got a plan!" she said. Bolten admitted, "The Republicans blew it," but Pelosi was unappeased. "If we don't get more votes on your side," she told him, "we have to have a different conversation."

The swift negative reaction—nearly 90 percent of Americans in one poll believed the defeat would damage the economy—quickly led some members to question their vote. Hoyer reported that Bolten had found "much voter remorse" among Republicans, and one Blue Dog leader reported that many in his business-friendly group were "shaking in their boots" from the reactions in their districts.

The Senate now knew there would be enormous pressure for the House to pass anything the Senate approved so as to prevent a time-consuming "ping-pong" process that sent the legislation back and forth between the two sides of the Capitol. Reid quickly exploited the House's failure to pass TARP by adding tens of billions of dollars in unrelated expenses the House had been balking at approving. Reid confidentially informed Pelosi his bill would extend a series of controversial energy tax credits, which he knew would displease many of her members. "This conversation never happened," he told her. Boehner predicted the extenders would influence "dozens" of Republicans to switch their votes in support of the bill, but Pelosi angrily denounced these unrelated additions as "pork barrel for senators."

"You dole out goodies over there," she tersely told Christopher Dodd, the Senate's Banking chairman, singling out a "disgraceful" coal-to-liquids development program favored by Obama. "We could do it, too, if we gave away tens of millions of dollars!"

Dodd did not deny the accusation. "Reid cared more about the extenders than he did the bailout," he acknowledged.

The familiarity of the Senate's maneuver caused House members to flare. "Reid screwed us, destroyed our leverage," in the words of one House leader. "We're being told it's 'our way or no way,'" complained Hoyer, declaring himself "a very unhappy camper" because of the way "the Senate jams us."

Close to midnight on October 1, the Senate approved the TARP bill—including the $150.5 billion package of tax extenders—by a bipartisan 74–25 margin. The next morning, Pelosi told Boehner she was hemorrhaging votes, while the Ohioan asserted he was "doing a lot better," although he still could not confirm he would reach his promised 100 votes. "There's no reason to bring it up if it can't pass," she responded, advising him to toughen up his whip operation. "Call me when you have the votes. I don't finger my members."

As annoyed as she was at the Senate for larding up the urgent TARP bill, Pelosi also blamed House opponents. "It's awful what the Senate put in, but we enabled them," Pelosi told Hoyer. "It is like lifting an anvil to get [our] people to vote for unpaid tax cuts," she told Bolten.

Now, instead of adding billions of dollars to create jobs or prevent foreclosures, as she had wished, the TARP bill would provide, at the insistence of the Senate, tens of billions of dollars not only for the energy producers' industry but also for special interests, including racetrack facilities, wool manufacturers, and rum producers. Yet facing the inevitable, Pelosi brought up the Senate bill on October 3, and it passed 263–171. Democratic votes rose slightly, to 73 percent of caucus members, but Republicans contributed only 91 votes, still short of Boehner's promise.

Working with the Republicans "turned out to be the biggest waste of time," Pelosi charged. "We should have written the bill we wanted on the first night. We still didn't get 100 Republican votes!"

[Read: An awkward beginning to Democratic control of the House]

The epic battle to pass the TARP legislation occurred under the most adverse of circumstances. The economy was in its most perilous state since the 1930s, a condition many Democrats blamed on the Bush administration—including the chief TARP negotiator, Henry Paulson—for having coddled Wall Street for seven years. The essence of the legislation was reviled by the public: hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars for corporations whose reckless behavior had destabilized the economy and cost millions of Americans their homes and their jobs. Moreover, this unprecedented rescue operation occurred just weeks before a crucial election, offering candidates a grave choice: Oppose TARP and risk contributing to an economic catastrophe, or spend hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue the very corporate titans whose greed had provoked the crisis.

And yet, the Democratic-led Congress did function swiftly and on a bipartisan basis, notwithstanding a White House under Republican control. In two weeks, combative leaders with starkly different ideological outlooks, institutional interests, and electoral objectives were able to find common ground to avert a national catastrophe. Future historians may well regard passing TARP, under such hair-raising circumstances, as one of Congress's finest hours. One can only wonder how successfully the contemporary Congress and White House might confront a comparable crisis.

There are several major explanations why the TARP rescue succeeded, and all contrast with our contemporary gridlock. TARP highlighted the value of experienced leaders. The "Big Four"—Pelosi and Reid, and Boehner and the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell—had to overcome serious cleavages within their own memberships while simultaneously defending their particular political and institutional roles.

The passage of the TARP bill also demonstrated the critical importance of frank communication between the executive and legislative branches. Even within the same party, as the Pelosi-Reid exchanges illustrate, there was tension and suspicion over the other's motives and objectives. Yet as the conversations in this article reveal, deep-seated partisanship and institutional rivalry yielded to realistic collaboration. Equally frank communication existed among key staff whose long-standing relationships facilitated partnership even when their bosses appeared to be at loggerheads. My own close association with Nowakowski, of Boehner's office, dated back seven years, to our serving as majority and minority staff directors of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

Perhaps no factor influenced the successful outcome more than the magnitude and urgency of the crisis itself, a common feature of periods of congressional achievement. The steadily worsening economy, rising unemployment, and loss of millions of homes since the February stimulus had not prompted a bipartisan response, and Republicans remained resistant to adding anti-recessionary initiatives to TARP. But the imminent collapse of key banking, investment, and insurance companies compelled joint action because the alternative was simply too dire to contemplate. As Mitch McConnell declared at the September 18 bipartisan leadership meeting, "If it means saving the country's financial system, we can do it."

[Read: The Nancy Pelosi problem]

Others, however, regard the bailout as a shameful example of how Congress acted only because of the urgent danger that jeopardized well-connected corporate interests. Indeed, promises made during the negotiations—to address the underlying causes of the crisis and its victims—proved less successful. Bush pledged investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and an expanded Hope Now program to keep people in their homes, but there was little time or energy left in his administration for either. And while Obama and a Democratic Congress pushed through a stimulus bill even larger than TARP in February 2009, many in his party expressed disappointment at the administration's slow pace in initiating foreclosure mitigation and job creation. Congress approved the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act less than two years later to establish safeguards against a recurrence of the behavior that led to the meltdown, but many critics complained that the necessary compromises needed to win passage left Wall Street insufficiently punished or regulated. By then, the crisis atmosphere that facilitated the TARP law had long since evaporated, and only three Republicans voted for the Dodd-Frank conference report in the House and the Senate.

For critics, TARP remains not an example of diligent public servants overcoming partisan and institutional interests, but indisputable evidence of what is wrong with American politics. Two and a half years after the crisis, 4 million families had lost their homes, and an additional 4.5 million were mired in foreclosure proceedings. The typical American household's net worth remains nearly 20 percent lower than it was before the crisis, and nearly $11 trillion in household wealth has evaporated. It took nearly a decade for home-ownership rates to register an increase, and black ownership, which had reached a historic high in 2004, remains at its lowest level in nearly three decades. And yet, TARP supporters note, the nation averted plunging into an abyss that would have made each of those measures catastrophically worse.

More than any other factor—perhaps even more than Obama's election or the enactment of health reform—TARP ignited a new level of partisanship and division that has debilitated American political institutions in the ensuing years. The law evoked a sense of betrayal: the political elite predictably rushing to aid the financial elite with the hard-earned tax dollars of the largely ignored working and middle classes. Indeed, what emerged from the ashes of the September 2008 meltdown was not only a revitalized Wall Street, with high salaries, stratospheric bonuses, and golden parachutes galore, but also the enraged Tea Party movement of 2009.

As the nation marked the 10th anniversary of the Paulson-Bernanke-Pelosi phone calls of September 18, 2008, efforts are under way to roll back many of the rules designed in the wake of the crisis. In May 2018, Trump's Fed chairman, Jerome Powell, announced a weakening of the so-called Volcker Rule, which restricts bank actions that endanger investors, citing "overly complex and inefficient requirements." Congress, with bipartisan support, has exempted many small and community banks from Dodd-Frank provisions. The effect of these retractions will likely "boost the profits of some of the industry's biggest players," one recent report concluded.

It is impossible to foresee whether this relaxation of regulations might allow a recurrence of the very misbehavior that brought the nation to the edge of the abyss only a decade ago. What seems beyond debate, however, is that the breakdown of comity between the White House and Congress, and the deepened levels of partisan distrust within the House and the Senate, would make it far more difficult today to replicate the actions of 2008 should a comparable crisis recur. The harsh reminder of how close the economy of the United States, and the world, came to a meltdown in 2008 should be more than sufficient reason for collaboration and pragmatism in politics rather than the perpetuation of the stultifying gridlock that has seized Washington.

The Golden Globes Just Threw a Wrench Into the Oscars Race

Posted: 07 Jan 2019 04:59 AM PST

On Sunday, the Golden Globes declared that the best films of 2018 were Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody—a surprising pair of wins that helped throw the Oscars race into chaos just weeks before that ceremony's nominations are announced. Green Book, a mostly fuzzy ode to the friendship between the musician Don Shirley and his driver, Tony Vallelonga, won Best Musical or Comedy; it beat out the more acerbic political satire Vice and the rapturously received royal comedy The Favourite. The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a film dogged by production drama and middling reviews, trounced the obvious Best Drama front-runner of the night, A Star Is Born, which went home empty-handed aside from a trophy for original song.

Bradley Cooper's remake of the Hollywood classic, which was both critically acclaimed and a box-office smash, seemed like the kind of film the Golden Globes are broadcast for. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the Globes, gravitates toward major stars, and it had already given Lady Gaga a trophy in 2016 for her much less well-reviewed acting on FX's American Horror Story. Cooper, who has never won a Globe, seemed primed to collect at least one tonight, given that the film was pitched to viewers as his passion project (one he backed up with an earthy lead performance).

Instead, Bohemian Rhapsody, itself an unexpected smash hit, won both Best Drama and Best Actor for Rami Malek, who played the Queen front man Freddie Mercury. The triumph came even though the director Bryan Singer was fired in the middle of production, the film received mixed reviews (The New York Times said it "seems engineered to be as unmemorable as possible"), and the story was critiqued for its moralizing edge regarding Mercury's sexuality. The Globes are known for unusual choices, but judging by the review-aggregation site Metacritic, Bohemian Rhapsody is the worst-reviewed Best Drama Globe winner in recorded history.

What the movie has going for it is its tremendous financial success and word-of-mouth popularity around the world (the Globes' voting body consists of Hollywood-based journalists and photographers who work for international outlets). That kind of broad populism could also apply to Green Book, which has been pitched as a feel-good story about race relations, one "based on a true friendship" (though some of its claims about Shirley have been disputed by his family). But Green Book hasn't been the kind of hit that Bohemian Rhapsody was; though the former also came out in November, it's made only $35 million in North America, a healthy but hardly sensational total.

Still, that didn't stop the film from winning Best Musical or Comedy, Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali (who plays Shirley), and Best Screenplay. When Green Book took Best Picture, its director, Peter Farrelly, gave a forceful speech, at one point demanding that he not be played off by a swelling musical cue. "This story, when I heard it, gave me hope, and I wanted to share that hope with you, because we're still living in divided times, maybe more so than ever," Farrelly said. "And that's what this movie is for. It's for everybody. If Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga can find common ground, we all can … We all want to be treated equally, and that's not such a bad thing."

The wins for Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book mean that many of the expected favorites at the Oscars may be in doubt. If A Star Is Born couldn't triumph at the Globes, perhaps its front-runner status is unearned. Even though Disney's Black Panther has been pushed with a robust campaign (and was the highest-grossing movie of the year), it went ignored at the Globes. More confrontational movies, such as Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman and Adam McKay's Vice, didn't gain much traction (outside of Christian Bale's Best Actor in a Comedy win for the latter), and Best Actress in a Drama went to Glenn Close for The Wife, a stagy but well-performed indie film that came out last summer.

Close's heartfelt and genuinely thrilled speech may help propel her to Oscar success (she's been nominated six times and has never won). Olivia Colman, who drew raves for her work as Queen Anne in The Favourite and won Best Actress in a Comedy, will be Close's main competition. Regina King, another beloved industry veteran, seemed similarly moved by her own win for If Beale Street Could Talk, and should be the safe pick in the Best Supporting Actress category. Another unknown element is Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which received the Foreign-Language Film and Best Director trophies but was ineligible in the Best Picture category because of Globes rules. Backed by Netflix, it will remain a serious competitor at the Oscars.

The Globes are always the real kickoff to awards season after months of industry speculation. But backlash can be just as important, and critical distaste for Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book will likely bubble back up now that the films are firmly in the spotlight. What had seemed like a very boring next two months, given A Star Is Born's box-office and critical success, will now be incredibly tumultuous. But that increased scrutiny could do more harm than good for many of Sunday's surprise winners.

Sandra Oh Wins a Golden Globe—And the Night

Posted: 06 Jan 2019 08:16 PM PST

The Golden Globes have long had a reputation for being Hollywood's most rollicking awards show, but Sunday evening's proceedings began with a tender moment of reflection amid the romp and the revelry. "I said yes to the fear of being on this stage tonight because I wanted to be here, to look out onto this audience and witness this moment of change," the Killing Eve star Sandra Oh said as she closed out the opening monologue alongside her co-host, the comedian Andy Samberg. Given the historical whiteness of the industry—and the ceremony—she was acknowledging the significance of nominated works created by and starring people of color, including If Beale Street Could Talk, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Roma.

Oh's voice shook as the actor concluded her expression of gratitude: "I'm not fooling myself. Next year could be different and probably will be. But right now, this moment is real." The first person of Asian descent to ever host the Globes, Oh also shouted out the earning power of Crazy Rich Asians, joked about Asian moms being difficult to impress, and directed the cameras to focus on her own (beaming) mother in the audience. The speech was undeniably moving, even for those who've grown accustomed to viewing the industry's glitzy gatherings with cynicism. And it was no surprise that Oh, with her preternatural talent and warm insight, offered the night's first—and most profound—moment of inspiration.

Later in the ceremony, after winning her own Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Drama Series, Oh again embraced sincerity, nodding to her parents. "There are two people here tonight that I'm so grateful that they're here with me. I'd like to thank my mother and my father," she said tearily before addressing them in Korean: "Mom, Dad, I love you." Oh's words, which came after Regina King's powerful acceptance of a trophy for her role in Barry Jenkins's If Beale Street Could Talk, felt like another breath of fresh air. The Golden Globe was both Oh's first and only the second win for any Asian performer in that category. The significance of this distinction was not lost on the actor, and she continued to radiate a steady charm throughout the evening.

Prior to the shift to earnestness, Samberg and Oh's opening monologue had traded in multiple joking (and in Samberg's case, often self-effacing) references to Hollywood's many humorous moments of the past year, as well as to its well-documented, and ongoing, struggle with diversity. "You know what race of people really gets under my skin?" Samberg quipped before winkingly answering his own question. "The Hollywood Half Marathon. Cause it messes up all the traffic, you know?" The punchline was likely intended as a moment of exhalation (Get it, he's not racist! Or otherwise offensive, like some other would-be awards-show hosts!). Still, the joke was a tonally awkward way to kick off the evening. Following another long year of stilted reckoning in the entertainment world—with regards to racial diversity, as well as with gender discrimination and sexual misconduct—these sorts of jokes felt unearned in the way that Hollywood's rush to mock its own faults often can be.

But many of Oh's lines in particular felt like lived-in callbacks to the now-sloganified phrase she offered as part of a skit during last year's Emmys: "It's an honor just to be Asian." (Especially following the actor's Golden Globe win, the line feels especially cheeky.) She took aim at the trend of whitewashing in a particularly pointed joke about Crazy Rich Asians, calling the blockbuster "the first studio film with an Asian American lead since Ghost in the Shell and Aloha." Emma Stone, who drew ire for playing a character of Chinese descent in the latter film, shouted "I'm sorry!" from the audience in a moment of either contrition or quirky PR.

Fortunately, Oh's awards-night charisma never felt gimmicky. The host's shoutout to the "faces of change" in the audience cut through the politesse of Hollywood's most common references to its own structural barriers. Oh herself is all too familiar with the reality of those obstacles: Though the Korean-Canadian veteran of Grey's Anatomy has been acting for three decades, it was only last year that she landed a lead role.

As the titular character in the Phoebe Waller-Bridge–led BBC America drama Killing Eve, Oh is brilliant, frustrating, and deliciously complicated. The British intelligence agent Eve Polastri is the kind of role Asian actors are rarely granted, no matter how talented or experienced they may be. "It's like, how does racism define your work? Oh my goodness, I didn't even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers," Oh told Vulture's E. Alex Jung last year, speaking of the moment when she was offered the part—and didn't realize she was up for the lead. "After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, 'Oh my god! They brainwashed me!' I was brainwashed!"

[Read: 'Killing Eve' and the riddle of why women kill]

In her affirmation of the other actors of color in the room (and by extension, the diverse audiences watching from home), Oh directly pushed back against that kind of implicit indoctrination with a simple antidote: recognition. It's a small thing, but an important note in an entertainment climate where productions like Killing Eve, as well as the much-lauded Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, are exceptions.

Oh's comments throughout the early parts of the show didn't posit an endpoint to the work of transforming Hollywood's deep, systemic biases. She didn't congratulate the industry for accomplishing more than it's attempted to fix. She simply acknowledged the fact that any tangible shifts that have happened—and any that are yet to come—have been spearheaded by those whom Hollywood has historically denied substantive opportunities. That determination isn't new, but it certainly is real.

<em>ContraPoints</em> Is Political Philosophy Made for YouTube

Posted: 06 Jan 2019 03:24 PM PST

Marie, a slender woman wearing white lingerie and glitter-encrusted nails, gets into her bath with a bottle of Moët and calls for her servant Antoine. When the door opens, it's not Antoine, but another woman in a lab coat and a purple wig. "The Doctor," as the visitor is known, has come to force Marie to watch an educational video about climate change. The pair argue, insult one another, and eventually encounter a personification of the sea, who's played as a raunchy cross between Ursula from The Little Mermaid and the child-devouring Cronus of Greek myth.

This is, essentially, the plot of "The Apocalypse," the latest video from ContraPoints. Created and hosted by Natalie Wynn, the political YouTube channel began as a cult hit and now boasts nearly 400,000 subscribers, having recently garnered mainstream attention from outlets such as The New Yorker, The Economist, and the podcast Chapo Trap House. The videos are impressively produced: Wynn uses lush sets, moody lighting, and original music by the composer Zoë Blade to forge a distinctive aesthetic that can be described as a kind of high-concept burlesque, drenched in neon. The most spectacular attraction, though, is Wynn herself. While her primary persona is the eponymous Contra, she also plays a cast of visually and ideologically distinct characters. Viewers might see Wynn as a supercilious women's studies professor insulting Wynn as a transgender cat-girl. Or a submissive Wynn explaining the political theory of hypothetical consent while being whipped by a dominant Wynn. Or a fascist Wynn dog-whistling to an online audience while winning a debate against an academic-historian Wynn on a libertarian talk show—hosted by Wynn. The videos are consistently smart, surreal, and fun to watch.

While Wynn positions herself on the left, she is no dogmatic ideologue, readily admitting to points on the right and criticizing leftist arguments when warranted. She has described her work as "edutainment" and "propaganda," and it's both. But what makes her videos unique is the way Wynn combines those two elements: high standards of rational argument and not-quite-rational persuasion. ContraPoints offers compelling speech aimed at truth, rendered in the raucous, meme-laden idiom of the internet. In particular, Wynn has managed the remarkable feat of bringing the spirit of Socratic dialogue to one of the most vicious battlefields of the online culture wars.


ContraPoints was born of a specific political and rhetorical context. In 2014, Wynn noticed a trend on YouTube that disturbed her: Videos with hyperbolic titles like "why feminism ruins everything," "SJW cringe compilation," and "Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Every College Snowflake" were attracting millions of views and spawning long, jeering comment threads. Wynn felt she was watching the growth of a community of outrage that believes feminists, Marxists, and multiculturalists are conspiring to destroy freedom of speech, liquidate gender norms, and demolish Western civilization. Wynn created ContraPoints to offer entertaining, coherent rebuttals to these kinds of ideas. Her videos also explain left-wing talking points—like rape culture and cultural appropriation—and use philosophy to explore topics that are important to Wynn, such as the meaning of gender for trans people.

Unlike many others who share her political beliefs, Wynn thinks it's a mistake to assume that viewers of angry, right-wing videos are beyond redemption. "It's quite difficult to get through to the people who are really committed to these anti-progressive beliefs," Wynn told me recently. However, she said, she believes that many viewers find such ideas "psychologically resonant" without being hardened reactionaries. This broad, not fully committed center—comprising people whose minds can still be changed—is Wynn's target audience.

Usually, the videos to which Wynn is responding take the stance of dogged reason cutting through the emotional excesses of so-called "political correctness." For example, the American conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who is a target of a recent ContraPoints video, has made "facts don't care about your feelings" his motto. Wynn's first step in trying to win over those who find anti-progressive views appealing is to show that these ideas often rest on a flimsy foundation. To do so, she fully adopts the rational standards of argument that her rivals pride themselves on following, and demonstrates how they fail to achieve them. Here, Wynn takes her cues from Socrates, who was famous for publicly exposing the ignorance of men who thought themselves wise. (Contra frequently alludes to the Athenian in videos, often directly addressing a bust of the philosopher.) Wynn dissects her opponents' positions, holding up fallacies, evasions, and other rhetorical tricks for examination, all the while providing a running commentary on good argumentative method.

The host defends her own positions according to the same principles. Wynn takes on the strongest version of her opponent's argument, acknowledges when she thinks her opponents are right and when she has been wrong, clarifies when misunderstood, and provides plenty of evidence for her claims. Wynn is a former Ph.D. student in philosophy, and though her videos are too rich with dick jokes for official settings, her argumentative practice would pass muster in any grad seminar.

While Wynn faults what she sees as the incompetent philosophy of her right-wing opponents, she critiques many of her leftist allies for being bad at persuasion. The latest ContraPoints video dramatizes how people with progressive beliefs often fail to change minds on an issue, even when they have all the basic moral and empirical facts on their side. In "The Apocalypse," the Doctor forces Marie to watch a video-within-a-video that makes a well-reasoned case for serious action on climate change. But Marie is frustrated: "You want me to go vegan, drive a Prius, and vote Democrat. You're basically asking me to completely change who I am as a person and become everything I hate." The Doctor's response: "Yep, pretty much." Marie raises some skeptical counterarguments ("Weather changes sometimes"), but quickly abandons them when pressed. Marie is not so much a climate skeptic as a climate indifferentist. She'll accept the possibility of an apocalypse, but will never give her adversaries the satisfaction of doing as they suggest. Though Marie is a caricature, Wynn's real target in this video is the Doctor, whose facts-only approach is a logical success but a persuasive failure.

The lesson of the video is that rational argument, even if it "destroys" the opposing position, usually isn't enough to convince. In one of her early videos, Contra pokes fun at a long series of obscene comments she received that used anal rape as a metaphor for victory in argument. She asks rhetorically, "Is tearing your opponent's butthole to shreds really the aim of rationality? ... Socrates wasn't arguing with the citizens of Athens because he wanted to blast their buttholes—ah, actually, he did want to do that—but wasn't there also a thing about, like, truth? And justice?" The reference to Greek pedagogical pederasty is crude, but it also has a deeper meaning: Wynn shares Socrates's view that persuasion, desire, and reason are inextricably related.  

Socrates knew that anyone who wishes to win minds must also win hearts. He didn't just earn the intellectual respect of his students; he inspired love, too. His acolytes followed him around the marketplace, hanging on his word, and one of the most moving speeches in the Platonic canon is the description by Alcibiades of his hopeless infatuation with the older philosopher. And of course Plato's dialogues themselves are, along with being philosophical masterpieces, early examples of fan fiction. In other words, Socrates persuaded by both the logic of argument and the dynamic of fandom. Wynn is beginning to grow a dedicated following of her own: Members of online discussion groups refer to her as "mother" and "the queen," produce fan art, and post photos of themselves dressed as characters from her videos.

This is not to say that Wynn is Socrates's second coming, simply that she shares Socrates's view that philosophy is more an erotic art than a martial one. As she puts it, she's not trying to destroy the people she addresses, but seduce them. The entire ContraPoints world is designed with this aim in mind. "The visual elements of the videos, the makeup and the costumes … these things have nothing to do with justice and truth but, nonetheless, it really changes the experience of the video," she told me. In "The West," Wynn delivers her opening satirical monologue covered in glitter and butterflies, wearing a costume made of giant, transparent wings studded with Christmas lights. The first step in seduction is catching her target's eye.

Yet for Wynn, the true key to persuasion is to engage her audience on an emotional level. Again, she's following the Socratic playbook: Plato's Phaedrus features Socrates at his most flirtatious, trying to persuade a young man who loves listening to speeches to hold the content he consumes to a more critical philosophical standard. In the course of the dialogue, Socrates explains that, to be effective, an orator must know what type of soul his audience has and match his speech to their particular tastes.

Wynn's determination to do both of these things is what sets her apart from other left-leaning media personalities. Late-night hosts such as John Oliver and Stephen Colbert, for example, are in the business of delivering laughs to a liberal audience by holding up some of the most spectacular examples of conservative ignorance or hypocrisy. But these commentators rarely make much effort to understand or commiserate with those they're criticizing. Meanwhile, Wynn spends weeks in the online communities of her opponents—whether they're climate skeptics or trans-exclusionary feminists—trying to understand what they believe and why they believe it. In Socrates's words, she's studying the souls of her audience.

One thing she has come across repeatedly is a disdain for the left's perceived moral superiority. Anti-progressives of all stripes, Wynn told me, show an "intense defensiveness against being told what to do" and a "repulsion in response to moralizing." Hence, Marie's resistance isn't rooted in deeply held opinions about climate science, but in a suspicion that she's being patronized by smug liberals. Wynn avoids the kinds of things that tend to spur such reactions, such as appeals to victimhood or "feelings," or even a whiff of self-righteousness.

Matching her speech to the audience's tastes presents a prickly rhetorical challenge. In an early video, Contra complains: "The problem is this medium. These goddamn savages demand a circus, and I intend to give them one, but behind the curtain, I really just want to have a conversation." Philosophical conversation requires empathy and good-faith engagement. But the native tongue of political YouTube is ironic antagonism. It's Wynn's inimitable way of combining these two ingredients that gives ContraPoints its distinctive mouthfeel.

In the first 90 seconds of "Does the Left Hate Free Speech? (part 1)," Wynn's persona deploys dripping sarcasm and mocks the prominent YouTube talk-show host Dave Rubin for (literally) crying over liberty. It's the kind of joyful rancor that gives online polemics their zest. But as soon as viewers have enjoyed the joke, Wynn backs off and acknowledges that plenty of educated and sincere people sympathize with Rubin's views. Then she extends something akin to an olive branch: "Pull up a seat. Let's talk."

This is the subtle difference between Wynn and many of her prominent YouTube counterparts on the right—the ones who summon their opponents to the arena of debate, hungry for victory and for the cheers of their supporters. Contra does her makeup, dons her pearls, and invites her opponents and her viewers into the parlor for cocktails and conversation. The talk isn't quite a heart-to-heart. Contra's burns are scorching, her satire precise, and many of her arguments reduce her opponents' positions to rubble. But somehow, when she does it, the effect is humanizing rather than bullying. She's flirting, not fighting.

The Great Illusion of <em>The Apprentice</em>

Posted: 06 Jan 2019 08:16 AM PST

I'm a Cabernet-sipping coastal elitist, so of course I never watched The Apprentice at the time it aired. But after Donald Trump emerged as the Republican front-runner in the summer of 2015, I decided I'd better look at him through the eyes of his many fans.

I thought back to those bouts of reality TV after reading Patrick Radden Keefe's profile of the television producer Mark Burnett in The New Yorker. Burnett, of course, was the creator of The Apprentice. The profile offers a sardonic behind-the-scenes look at how Burnett's show created a fake Trump in place of the real one. Here's the paragraph that has everyone talking.

"The Apprentice" portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. "Most of us knew he was a fake,"[Jonathon] Braun told me. "He had just gone through I don't know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king." Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, "We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise."

It's a satisfying exposure of an illusion that seduced millions of voters.

But what exactly was the illusion?

The Apprentice presented a false image of Trump's wealth and success, yes, just as Keefe so pungently describes. But viewers were presented with something even more attractive and even more false: an image of a titanically rich man who carefully weighed individual contributions to team effort—and held to account those who did not perform.

Now think of the context of the times. The Apprentice debuted in January 2004, the same month that the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq told Congress that he could find no evidence that Saddam Hussein still possessed weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. The spin-off Celebrity Apprentice premiered in January 2008, as the United States was entering its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  

Over those years, the American system stumbled from one failure to another. Because of the mistakes of the elite, thousands of Americans would lose their lives; millions of Americans would lose their homes and jobs. Yet almost none of those who made the mistakes were called to real account. Many made off from the wreckage with enormous fortunes.

Recollect Donald Trump's trademark phrase, "You're fired!" How satisfying was it to hear those words spoken inside an apparent corporate boardroom, targeted at a scheming executive wannabe—rather than some blameless working person whose only mistake had been to need a job in the throes of a financial upheaval?

The Apprentice offered a promise not only of enrichment, but of justice, at a time when Americans craved that fantasy even more than usual.  

It attached that promise not to a fictional character, but to an apparent real-life billionaire, who seemed to own real buildings with his own actual name on them, all over the world. This was no case of "I'm not a businessman, but I play one on TV." Apprentice viewers had every reason to accept Trump as NBC and Mark Burnett featured him: a businessman who cared about the team, who upheld standards, who rewarded and punished as his subordinates deserved.

"I alone can fix it" made sense in the context of The Apprentice, where Trump was shown to "fix it"—week in, week out.

The experience of the Trump presidency is exploding that fantasy. Accountability, responsibility, and justice are repugnant concepts to Trump, to the extent that he can even comprehend them in the first place.

The truth is now visible to all. But to understand why the illusion worked, we first need to appreciate what the illusion was.

Tucker Carlson’s Monologue Insults His Viewers

Posted: 06 Jan 2019 09:27 PM PST

Conservatives are abuzz about a long monologue delivered on Fox News by the host Tucker Carlson, who intimated solidarity with "normal Americans" while accusing U.S. elites of callously betraying their countrymen. "If an obscure senator gave this speech," Kyle Smith wrote at National Review, "he'd be famous overnight."

"A man or woman who can talk like that with conviction could become president," Rod Dreher gushed. "Voting for a conservative candidate like that would be the first affirmative vote I've ever cast for president."

The monologue was compelling. It is easy to imagine large swaths of the viewing audience concluding that, if nothing else, the host is on their side. But Carlson failed the most basic test of respect for his audience: He told them blatant lies, falsehoods, and untruths, assuming that they wouldn't notice. Some of us did.

A broadcaster's untruths can be difficult to hear in real time, especially if he's talented at modulating his voice and looking into the camera. But Carlson ranged across so many different subjects that he inevitably covered some terrain that the educated viewer would know a lot about. In those moments, his mendacity was unmistakable.

Take the subject of marijuana, something that I've reported on and written opinion articles about for almost 20 years. To make that issue fit his larger thesis that the woes of "normal Americans" are due to the callous disregard of a rapacious elite imposing its will on the demos, he tells this story about the drug's current role in American life:

If you really loved your fellow Americans, as our leaders should, if it would break your heart to see them high all the time. Which they are. A huge number of our kids, especially our boys, are smoking weed constantly. You may not realize that, because new technology has made it odorless. But it's everywhere.

We aren't yet to the meat of his argument, but it's worth pausing there to give you the facts that he withholds. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency, reports on a fact page last updated in December 2018 that "Daily, past-month, past-year, and lifetime marijuana use declined among 8th graders and remains unchanged among 10th and 12th graders compared to five years ago, despite the changing state [of] marijuana laws during this time period," and that "past-year use of marijuana reached its lowest levels in more than two decades among 8th and 10th graders in 2016 and has since remained stable."

They add that "among 12th graders, around six (5.8) percent continue to report daily use of marijuana, which corresponds to about one in 16 high school seniors." Carlson could've used those numbers and let viewers assess the degree of the problem for themselves, but vagueness allows him to make it seem as if pot use is growing more pervasive . Actually, teen marijuana use was much higher in the late 1970s.

Still, what's coming next is what really ought to rankle his viewers. About young people using marijuana because weed is "everywhere," he says:

And that's not an accident.

Once our leaders understood they could get rich from marijuana, marijuana became ubiquitous. In many places, tax-hungry politicians have legalized or decriminalized it. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner now lobbies for the marijuana industry. His fellow Republicans seem fine with that. "Oh, but it's better for you than alcohol," they tell us.

Maybe.

Who cares? Talk about missing the point. Try having dinner with a 19-year-old who's been smoking weed. The life is gone. Passive, flat, trapped in their own heads. Do you want that for your kids? Of course not. Then why are our leaders pushing it on us? You know the reason.

In this telling, greedy elites are pushing marijuana legalization on the public to line their pockets, never mind Johnny's dead eyes at the dinner table. And that narrative is absurd—it is flat-out, demonstrably untrue.

The American public is not a powerless victim of elites on marijuana legalization. Sixty-two percent of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal!

Where the recreational use of marijuana is legal, odds are very high that it got that way via ballot initiative. Voters in Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012. Voters in Oregon and Alaska (which has a long, complicated marijuana policy backstory) legalized marijuana in 2014. Voters in California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts legalized marijuana in 2016. And Michigan voters did it in 2018.

"2018 began with Vermont legalizing marijuana possession and home cultivation for adults," Kris Krane writes at Forbes. "This was the first time a state had ever legalized marijuana through the legislature." No state legislature has ever legalized marijuana over the objection of its voters. The U.S. Congress is, in fact, going against the will of the majority by preserving the federal prohibition on marijuana.

Future marijuana legalization by legislatures is now likely in other states. But as Krane puts it, that is only because "in 2018 politicians seemed to finally realize that cannabis reform is more popular than they are, and that they need to support it if they want to keep winning elections."

The truth is the opposite of what Carlson tells his viewers as he tries to seduce them with the false narrative that they are thwarted victims of elites "pushing" marijuana on us. On marijuana, for better or worse, "normal Americans" are slowly but surely getting their way—and while that might mean marginally more 19-year-olds are high at dinner, it also means marginally fewer 19-year-olds are getting arrested for pot possession, or seduced into selling pot, or shot in the violence that inevitably results, touching even non-pot-users, when black markets are the only way to get a product that lots of people will always buy.

Of course, I don't need to tell the 62 percent of you who support marijuana legalization that you're motivated by an earnest belief that it's the better policy to advance the public good, not by greed or callousness. You should be angry that Carlson is misrepresenting you to his audience. Everyone should hate that he is dividing us based on falsehoods.


Five years ago, when the mayor of Washington, D.C., announced plans to push for legalization of marijuana, Carlson was asked about it on a radio show.

He told the host:

People feel under attack from their government. They have every reason to feel that way. And so I understand why they're very suspicious of the war on drugs. Does D.C. need more high people? No. I'm not for the War on Drugs either, but the truth is, if you're a middle-aged man like I am and you're getting high all the time, it's depressing! This is a country with a ton of lazy, entitled people. It's been rich for 70 years. So inevitably you have people who just don't work very hard or have a lot of ambition. I don't think smoking more weed is going to fix that. Look, I'm against the drug war. I think we should let people do what they want to do. But these libertarians I run into think that legalizing weed is like the panacea, the answer, are stupid.

In other words, Carlson understands perfectly well that one can oppose the drug war and believe we should let people do what they want to do without being motivated by greed or callous indifference to one's fellow Americans or thinking "getting high all the time" is a good idea.


Most of Carlson's monologue was about subjects other than marijuana. It gained its power in part from the grains of truth sprinkled throughout. Some contradicted longtime pieties that need to be challenged.

But untruths were everywhere. After watching it, the conservative writer David French picked apart its inaccuracies on the subjects that he knows best. And he reached an astute conclusion that cuts to the core of the Fox host's larger project: "Carlson is advancing a form of victim-politics populism that takes a series of tectonic cultural changes—civil rights, women's rights, a technological revolution as significant as the industrial revolution, the mass-scale loss of religious faith, the sexual revolution, etc.—and turns the negative or challenging aspects of those changes into an angry tale of what they are doing to you."

Of course, there are discrete examples of corrupt elites wronging the public, as there are in all societies in all eras. But finding remedies—and avoiding cures that are worse than the disease—requires care and precision. Pandering monologues uttered with no particular regard for factual accuracy are an impediment to seeing what's wrong and fixing it. They are contempt and disloyalty for the audience masquerading as their opposite.


In the autumn of 2017, Carlson was profiled in GQ. Readers learned that he has paid a premium to spend his life in upper-class Washington, D.C., society, among the very people he purports to disdain, dining at upscale restaurants, joining exclusive private clubs, and sending his children to pricey private schools. I don't begrudge him those choices, but has he really chosen to surround his family with people he regards as greedy, callous monsters who constantly betray their country? Either his views are more nuanced than he lets on or his judgment is terrible.

In that profile, he declares of immigration, "That's not a subject that I'm demagoguing on," leaving one to wonder what subjects he is consciously demagoguing on. Of Washington, D.C., he told the writer, "There's this illusion, and it's created by the people who live here, that everything is meaningful, everything important. It's not." It's a convenient worldview if you're hungry for ratings and know that intellectually honest commentary isn't always the most effective way to get them.

Untruths hurt real people. Try having dinner with a 79-year-old who watches Tucker Carlson every day. They're anxious, angry, trapped in their own heads, and thinking of themselves as aggrieved victims. That's why every assertion and argument on matters of national import that a popular TV-news host offers is "meaningful" and "important," especially if it's crafted to provoke an emotional response in viewers.