Why Conservatives Pretend Big Tech Is Muzzling Them

Posted: 28 Jul 2019 03:30 AM PDT

Learning to distinguish evidence from nonsense is a core goal of both a liberal and a legal education in America. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, has a bachelor of arts degree in public policy from Princeton University. He graduated from Harvard Law School. He has worked as a successful litigator. At some point along the way, Cruz learned how to decide which ideas are baseless.

Like many loud voices in his party, Cruz has suspended that habit of evidentiary discrimination in recent years. Earlier this month, he and a fellow Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Twitter, Facebook, and Google for alleged anti-conservative bias in content moderation practices and the ways algorithms prioritize some types of content over others.

At congressional hearing after congressional hearing, Donald Trump speech after Donald Trump interview, and Fox News talk show after Fox News talk show, we have heard a steady, coordinated chorus of complaints about conservative bias on these platforms. As serious policy makers wrestle with the complex challenges that Big Tech poses—in areas such as disinformation, Russian propaganda, antitrust, and privacy—Cruz, Hawley, and others on the right keep insinuating that platforms are somehow suppressing conservative views.  

There is no evidence for these accusations. There are no legitimate studies supporting these contentions. There is no documentation of company officials ordering up anti-conservative bias or policies.

But to say there is no evidence for these accusations is too weak. These complaints are just false. For smart people who know better—smart people like Cruz, the first U.S. presidential candidate to hire Cambridge Analytica and try to use its trove of personal Facebook data on millions of Americans—this is an intentionally duplicitous move.

Cruz knows that conservatives need Facebook and Google and that they benefit greatly from the algorithmic amplification that occurs in both systems. Trump's 2020 campaign manager is Brad Parscale, who ran digital operations for the president's successful  2016 campaign. Parscale declared that his mastery of Facebook for advertising, amplifying pro-Trump videos and memes, and fundraising won the 2016 election.

Scholarship supports this conclusion. As sociologist Jen Schradie demonstrates in great detail in her new book, The Revolution That Wasn't: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, Facebook and Google work better for top-down, well funded, disciplined, directed movements. Those adjectives tend to describe conservative groups more than liberal or leftist groups in the United States. In our current media ecosystem, right-wing sources of news and propaganda spread much farther and faster than liberal or neutral sources do, according to a rigorous quantitative study of communication network patterns by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts at Harvard's Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society. Internet platforms are demonstrably not silencing conservative ideas. If anything, the opposite is true.

No algorithm is neutral. Facebook and Google are biased, but in a way that has nothing to do with American political ideologies or parties. Instead, both of these global systems favor content that generates strong emotional reactions from users—clicks, shares, "likes," and comments. There is a clear commercial reason for this design choice. It keeps users hooked, ready to click on more advertisements and thus generate more revenue for the platform.

Media scholar Zeynep Tufecki has explained how YouTube's recommendation engine sends viewers down rabbit holes of extremism because passive people like to be prodded to feel something, whether that's anger, humor, joy, fear, or hatred. And I have described all the ways Google and Facebook move users (and users move Google and Facebook) to anger us, divide us, distract us, and undermine our ability to function as citizens of a democratic republic.

In short, Facebook is a remarkable tool for motivation. It's a terrible platform for deliberation. Democratic citizenship demands both motivation of the like-minded and deliberation among those with different ideas and agendas. And Google is a terrible tool for discerning truth from falsity. Google is worse at discerning relevant information from trivia. It's not a good source to achieve depth of understanding about a diverse and changing world.

We have trained the algorithms to feed us more extreme content every time. The algorithms are designed to work that way. We change YouTube and Facebook, so YouTube and Facebook change us—and not for the better.

Many conservatives are hip to these criticisms. "Big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter exercise enormous influence on speech," Hawley and Cruz wrote in a letter to the FTC. "The vast majority of internet traffic flows through just a handful of these companies. They control the ads we see, the news we read, and the information we digest. And they actively censor some content and amplify other content based on algorithms and intentional decisions that are completely nontransparent." I could not have described the situation more clearly.

Yet rather than helping to forge a careful policy response, these two senators—and others on the right—leap from a description of a real set of problems to a mythical one. How and why do they mask the clear conclusions that Google and Facebook have helped mold the environment that gave us Donald Trump? The campaign to label these platforms "anti-conservative" serves two main purposes.

First, conservatives are working the refs. If conservatives put media executives on their heels, constantly defending themselves or excusing themselves or apologizing for misunderstandings, then these companies are likely to bend toward conservatives out of fear or just exhaustion. This strategy has succeeded before. The liberal media critic Eric Alterman has documented campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s that resulted in mainstream outlets like The New York Times pushing unjustified right-wing causes like the Whitewater investigation and the invasion of Iraq.

Working the refs is still effective. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter are not wise enough to understand what's happening. So both Facebook and Twitter have allowed themselves to be worked. Platforms do make some intentional decisions to moderate the content that appears on their websites. But Facebook, Twitter, and Google staff try to do so based on principles and standards that they agonize over. Calls to violence or gender-based harassment should not be considered expressions of political ideology. More often than not, these companies under-filter hate speech because they have such strong concern for free speech. Far from rushing to suspend even conspiracy slingers and hatemongers like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, executives at Facebook and Twitter hemmed and hawed for years about whether to enforce their own terms of service.

Surely Cruz and Hawley don't mean to make Alex Jones's cause their cause, right? If they did, they'd be equating American conservatism with ethno-nationalist trolling and loony fantasies like Pizzagate.

The campaign to convince people that the problem with Facebook and Google is that they lean left serves a second, more dangerous purpose. Fundamentally, it is an attempt to undermine seriousness—that is, to make any productive discussion impossible.

Deep, measured, scholarly critiques of the most powerful elements of our information ecosystem get drowned out when Cruz, Hawley, or Trump crow about bias. That's an easy talking point for politicians to push, an easy story for distractible news organizations to report, and an easy idea for a gullible public to digest. The concept that billions of aggregated human decisions mold the actions of complex machine-learning systems—which in-turn guide human behavior, ultimately rendering us shallow, exhausted, angered, and willing to believe just about anything—is not such a pithy story.

Cruz and Hawley know perfectly well they can't legislate or regulate the editorial choices that private companies make in America. They are not making serious proposals nor introducing any evidence for their complaints.

That is the real story of Facebook and Google and their effects on our collective minds. We have been rendered unable to take serious things seriously. One reason we can't face that horrible conclusion is that—well, we can't take serious things seriously. Cruz, Hawley, and Trump benefit greatly from that vicious circle in the short term, but democracy and the pursuit of a decent society suffer greatly over time.

George Will Changes His Mind—But Stays True to His Convictions

Posted: 28 Jul 2019 03:00 AM PDT

When I arrived in Washington, D.C., as an intern in the 1980s, there were two columnists I read with intentionality, with the goal of becoming a better and more thoughtful writer. One was Charles Krauthammer; the other was George Will.

Will—who began his twice-weekly column for The Washington Post in 1974, and won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977—has just published The Conservative Sensibility, a thoughtful, elegant reflection on American conservatism and the Founders' political thought. By "sensibility," Will has in mind less than an agenda but more than an attitude. A sensibility is, he argues, a way of seeing. His aim is less to tell people what to think rather than how to think through complex social problems.

Will's 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, had a significant intellectual impact on me. He questioned the Founders' faith that moral balance and national cohesiveness will be supplied by the government's doing little more than encouraging the free operation of "opposite and rival interests." America was "ill-founded," he wrote, because there was not enough attention to what he termed "the sociology of virtue." Government needed to take a greater role in shaping the moral character of its citizens.

The Conservative Sensibility suggests something else: that we should be attending more to the machinery of government and that government should be far less concerned about inculcating virtue in the citizenry. George Will circa 2019 seems a good deal less enamored with soulcraft as a goal of statecraft. I've admired and closely followed Will's work over the years, and so I wanted to ask him why his thinking had evolved.

[Peter Wehner: What I've gained by leaving the Republican party]

For one thing, Will told me, he has a more jaundiced view of government now than he did in the early 1980s. But he added, laughing, "It turns out that Madison was smarter than I am." When he argued that America was ill-founded because insufficient attention was given to soulcraft, he explained, he hadn't fully appreciated that the Founders were indeed arguing about statecraft as soulcraft—that a government really can inculcate virtue.

"They understood that when a political regime establishes, through laws and courts and customs and other matters, a particular political economy, it is establishing, it is choosing the kind of people that would live under that regime," Will said. He argues in The Conservative Sensibility that capitalism doesn't just make us better off; it makes us better by enforcing such virtues as thrift, industriousness, and the deferral of gratification.

"There's a wonderful passage that I quote from Tocqueville, in the 1830s floating down the Ohio River. On his left is slave-holding Kentucky. On his right is free soil of Ohio. And the difference Tocqueville says is one is crackling with energy and high spiritedness and optimism and the other is torpid and frozen like a fly in amber. And there's the difference," Will told me. "So, long story short: I did not appreciate the extent to which Madisonian liberty with Hamiltonian energy is soulcraft."

When I probed Will on what has gone wrong with the American right, he mentioned the anti-intellectualism that inevitably comes with populism, which he called "the obverse of conservatism."

"Populism is the belief in the direct translation of public impulses, public passions. Passion was the great problem for the American Founders," Will points out. "Populism is a direct translation of popular passions into governments through a strong executive. Someone who might say something like, 'Only I can fix it.' Which of course is what the current president said to the convention that nominated him in 2016." Will argued that Madison understood the need to "filter and refine and deflect and slow public opinion through institutions. To make it more refined, to produce what Madison called, in one of his phrases that I'm particularly fond of, 'mitigated democracy.'"

"The principle of representative government, which is at the heart of conservatism, is that the people do not decide, the people choose who will decide. And that's why populism inevitably becomes anti-intellectual." I asked Will what would most concern the Founders about contemporary politics. "Political leaders today seem to feel that their vocation is to arouse passions," he told me, "not to temper and deflect and moderate them."

Our conversation moved from James Madison to Donald Trump, who, Will says, is not mentioned in his book for the same reason Doris Day isn't: Neither has made a contribution to our understanding of conservatism.

Of course, President Trump matters in a way that Doris Day does not, since it is Trump, by his takeover of the Republican Party, who has fundamentally redefined the GOP, and in so doing, left conservatism politically homeless. As someone who raised alarms about Trump as far back as 2011, I wish he were not relevant, too. But I'm not sure that the leader of the Republican Party, president of the United States, and the most popular figure among self-avowed conservatives can be so easily removed from the picture. Trump knows almost nothing about conservatism, yet because of his political success, his fate is now intertwined with those of conservatism and of America's civic and political culture.

[Peter Wehner: Trump's sinister assault on truth]

Will has claimed that Trump has done more lasting damage than Richard Nixon did during the Watergate scandal because, in Will's words, "you can't un-ring the bell. You can't unsay what he has now said is acceptable discourse in the United States."

Trump supporters argue, I told Will, that the president may be a little rough around the edges, that his tweets might be over the top now and then, but those things are mostly inconsequential and ephemeral. What matters, they say, is what Trump does, not what he says, and what he has done is advance conservative policies and appoint conservative judges.

Will replied that he hoped Trump supporters are right—but he's pretty sure they are wrong when they say that what Trump is doing to our culture, our politics and our civic discourse is ephemeral.

Trump's supporters on the right "misunderstand the importance of culture, the viscosity of culture, and I think they are not conservatives because they don't understand this," Will said. "Nixon's surreptitious burglaries were surreptitious; that is, they were done in secret because they were unacceptable to the country and once exposed they were punished and the country moved on. What Mr. Trump has done is make acceptable, make normal, a form of behavior that would get a third grader sent to the principal's office or to bed without dessert." Will argues that Trump's agenda, to the degree it pleases conservatives, is what any Republican president would have done. "So the question is what does Trump bring that's distinctive?" Will said. "And it's all vulgarity, coarsening, semi-criminality."

I pressed the point, asking about the concrete, tangible harm of Trump's conduct.

"The answer is in the terms themselves," Will replied. "The norms, that is, what are normal and what are normative, cease to be normal. And cease to be normative." His point is that Nixon, for all his crimes, evaded norms; he didn't challenge them. He didn't dispute them. He didn't degrade them. In fact, he was ultimately done in by them. Donald Trump promised when he ran for president that he would overturn our norms, Will has said, and that's one promise he's kept.

"It's amazing to me how fast, and we saw this in the 20th century in a number of ways, how fast something could go from unthinkable to thinkable to action," Will recently told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell. "And it doesn't seem to me it's going to be easy to just snap back as if this didn't happen. It happened. And he got away with it. And he became president. And there will be emulators."   

[Tom Nichols: Why I'm leaving the Republican party]

All of us, including Will, have to deal with the fact that we are now confronted with a head of government who is systematically assaulting our ideals and virtues. Those who may have forgotten are now being reminded that government has a vital role in the cultivation and sustenance—or in the degradation and destruction—of political cultures. Which brings us back to Statecraft as Soulcraft.

"The American nation's finest political career derived from Lincoln's refusal to allow his country to be seduced into thinking of itself in an unworthy way," Will wrote 35 years ago. He added that the civic virtues that Madison and the other Founders believed were essential for a free republic to survive "must be willed. It is folly to will an end but neglect to will the means to the end. The presuppositions of our polity must be supplied, politically."

He added, "To revitalize politics and strengthen government, we need to talk about talk. We need a new, respectful rhetoric—respectful, that is, of the better angels of mankind's nature." The reason, he said, is because "mankind is not just matter, not just a machine with an appetitive ghost in it. We are not what we eat. We are, to some extent, what we and our leaders—the emblematic figures of our polity—say we are."

Today, the most emblematic figure of our polity is Donald J. Trump. Which is a problem.

In some sense, Will's broader project over the course of his career is the restoration of norms, the bolstering of public confidence in government, and the recovery of the nation's founding virtues. "What I'd like progressives to take away from the book is a reconsideration of their dilemma," he recently told me. "And their dilemma is this: in 1964, when I cast my first presidential vote for Barry Goldwater, to whose memory the book is dedicated, 77 percent of the American people said they trusted the government to do the right thing all the time or almost all the time. Today it's 17 percent—and that 60-point evaporation of government prestige has accompanied a 60-fold increase in government pretensions. I would think my progressive friends would be alarmed by this, because their entire agenda depends on strong government and strong government depends on public confidence in the government."

"What I'd like conservatives to take away from this book," Will added, "is the sense of the enormous intellectual pedigree behind conservatism from Madison to Lincoln to Hayek and the rest." Will said conservatives need to answer the question: What does conservatism want to conservative?

For Will, the answer is the American founding, by which he has in mind three things: the doctrine of natural rights, understood as rights essential to the flourishing of creatures with our natures; a belief in human nature, meaning we are more than creatures who absorb whatever culture we're situated in; and a government architecture, principally the separation of powers, that is essential to making good on what he refers to as the most crucial verb in the Declaration of Independence. "In the second paragraph it says that governments are instituted to secure our rights," he said. "And they are secured by the separation of powers."

[Read: The President learns about separation of powers]

The most important of all revolutions, Edmund Burke said, is a "revolution in sentiment, manners and moral opinion." What conservatives like Will and I believe, and what we think Trump supporters either don't understand or deny, is the destructive revolution in manners and mores that Donald Trump is ushering in, the enormous cultural and social blast radius of his presidency. Through his promiscuous lying and assault on demonstrable truths, his cruelty and crudity, his coarseness, bullying and dehumanization of his opponents, and his lawlessness and conspiracy-mongering—the whole corrupt, packaged deal—he has brought us into dark new realms.

There was a time when Republicans and conservatives more generally insisted that culture was upstream of politics and in many respects more important than politics; that leaders needed to take great care in cultivating and validating standards of decency, honor and integrity; and that a president who destroyed rather than defended cultural norms and high standards would do grave injury to America. But now Republicans are willing to sacrifice soul and culture for the sake of promised policy victories.

Will took, as his own intellectual model, a figure very different from Trump. He dedicated Statecraft as Soulcraft, to his father—Frederick L. Will, a professor of philosophy—and he refers to him briefly in The Conservative Sensibility. "I had breakfast and dinner with my father for 18 years," Will told me. "And he was not didactic; he was not a moralist. I can remember very few times when he made a point of telling me things." (In a provocative chapter on religion, Will says that like his father, he is an "amiable, low-voltage atheist.")

Will, who earned his Ph.D. in politics at Princeton and later taught political philosophy, added this: "I remember it used to be a big deal when the new automobiles came out. The model year. And we went down to look at the Ford dealership and it was the first year they had a Crown Victoria. And the Crown Victoria had a big swoop of chrome right over the roof. And my father looked at this thing and said they ought to have called it the Mozart Wagon. And I said why? And he said, 'Because Mozart proved that you could be a genius without being ostentatious.' And that always struck me. Not that my father had any illusions that his son was a genius, but it was just a way of looking at the world. I mean, my father obviously was crucial. He was articulate, we had a house full of books, and he was a measured philosopher. So he made distinctions, which is what philosophers do." It's what some of our best columnists do, too.

Near the end of our interview I reminded Will that it was said that Clare Boothe Luce told President Kennedy that a great man gets a single sentence in the history books: Lincoln preserved the union and freed the slaves. Franklin Roosevelt lifted us out of the Great Depression and helped us win a world war.

"If the great columnists got a single sentence in the history books," I asked Will, "what would you want to say about your contribution?"

"It would be to convince people that politics is both fun and dignifies – that it has a great and stately jurisdiction, because and to the extent that it is a politics of ideas. Period."

Few columnists in American history have understood politics as well or taken serious ideas as seriously as Will. As the last few years have shattered the intellectual integrity and reputations of the many conservatives who jettisoned their principles in order to curry favor with Donald Trump, George Will has stayed true to his convictions. I wish more had followed his lead.

How Not to Run a Panel

Posted: 28 Jul 2019 03:00 AM PDT

Over the past few years, I've participated in about a hundred panels. Over the past couple of decades, I've listened to—or, let's be honest, endured—hundreds more. Most of them had one thing in common: They sucked.

I could write a whole book about the panels that have gone wrong in particularly strange or hilarious fashion: the one where the moderator fell asleep. The one where the opening statements lasted longer than the time allotted for the whole event. The one, high up on the 10th floor, when the acrobatic window washer stole the show.

These exotic horrors notwithstanding, I disagree with Leo Tolstoy: Every unhappy panel is unhappy in some of the same ways.

You know the scene. First come the long introductions. Then five people give opening statements of steadily increasing length. After that is a "conversation" in which the panelists talk past one another, sticking to the same old points they have made dozens of times before. This is followed by a few incoherent rants from the angriest members of the audience (question mark optional). Finally, a polite round of applause, which is anticipated with the same resigned longing as the saving bell on the last day of school.

It doesn't have to be like that. At their rare best, panels can actually be fun and informative.

If you are ever in charge of organizing a panel, it is your professional responsibility—nay, your sacred moral duty—to avoid some of the tortures daily visited upon suspecting conference-goers. In that spirit, here are my six rules for (panel) life.

1. Don't have more than four people onstage.

It's really hard to have a conversation among lots of people—especially when time is short. Yes, I know that you're under pressure from marketing to include a member of that team. And, yes, I get that the sponsors of the conference need to be featured at some point. And, absolutely, it would be a shame to sacrifice the one speaker who actually, you know, has something interesting to say. But if you put more than four people onstage, you're giving up on the prospect of a lively conversation from the very start. Don't.

2. Keep introductions to a minimum.

Most panels have a captive audience. But even if bored members of the audience can't leave, they can—and often do—go into internal exile. As the head of the organization introduces the conference organizer, and the conference organizer introduces the moderator, and the moderator reads a detailed list of the panelists' achievements, half of the audience shifts its attention to shopping, snoozing, or engaging in fantasies of murder.

So never take more than 20 seconds for any single introduction. After all, much of the audience will already know who's onstage. And everyone else can consult the program, or the internet.

(Need more motivation to cut your introduction in half? Imagine your most famous panelist walking over to you, putting a hand on your shoulder, smiling sympathetically, and saying, "They came to hear me, you know.")

[Yascha Mounk: The rapid fall of the left]

3. Ax the opening statements.

One problem with opening statements is that they're not just openings—they tend to take over the whole event. Asked to speak for five minutes, the first panelist will speak for seven, and the second panelist for 10. Quickly adopting to the rate of inflation, the third panelist will take up 15 minutes. Even if you avoided the temptation of putting more than four people onstage, half of your time has now been taken up by disconnected monologues.

An even deeper problem with opening statements is that they make it much harder to put the ideas and perspectives of the speakers into genuine conversation with one another. Having set out their own tent, most speakers will stick to their turf. Most likely they will never emerge to meet one another on common (or contested) ground.

4. Guide the conversation.

Moderators are the audience's advocate. It is their duty to make sure that the panel is interesting and comprehensible—and that wayward panelists don't get to ruin the whole thing.

If you are moderating and a panelist speaks in technical language that most members of the audience won't understand, don't nod along sagely; ask for an explanation in clear language. If a panelist drones on and on about a boring topic, don't switch off; pass the baton to another speaker. And if the panelists are talking past one another, don't cue up the next monologue; make sure they actually engage with one another's ideas.

5. Cut off the cranks.

I have a confession: I love rambling statements from the cranks in the audience. You get to see how easily the moderator gets flustered. You get to see how speakers respond to crazy ideas. And you definitely get to see how good everyone is at concealing their most uncharitable thoughts. What's not to like?

But if you do want to stop the cranks from taking over—and despite my strange predilections, you probably should—your job is actually quite simple: Set out clear ground rules before you open the floor to the audience. Emphasize that you are looking for concise questions, not long rants. Make clear that you will cut people off if they go on for longer than 20 seconds. Do.

6. Pick panelists who have something to say to one another.

A good panel is a public conversation among interesting people who have real disagreements about an important topic. If you follow the simple advice in this article, you're well on your way toward organizing such a panel. Congratulations!

But nothing works without the basics: Choose a topic in which your audience will take a genuine interest. Pick panelists who have real disagreements with one another. That is, make sure your speakers bring different perspectives and backgrounds to the stage.

[Yascha Mounk: How authoritarians manipulate elections]

You may wonder whether this is putting too much emphasis on conflict and difference. Isn't there a place for panels to advance a specific point of view?

It's absolutely fine for the speakers to share a broad ideology or worldview; nobody expects a conservative at a gathering of progressive organizers (or vice versa). But if your speakers agree on everything important, the audience will be bored.

Thankfully, there is an easy solution if your goal is persuasion rather than debate: Ask one person to give a talk. Between us, most of those are better than panels anyway.

Searching for Beto

Posted: 28 Jul 2019 02:00 AM PDT

FLINT, Mich.—"Do you need me to check the sturdiness of the noodle?"

Beto O'Rourke leaned over a pot of boiling water. Mae and David Collins and their 17-year-old twins had invited him over for dinner. (A nonprofit group had connected them before the candidate's visit to Michigan last week.) The former Texas representative and not-so-long-ago Democratic sensation sat around the Collinses' dining-room table, talking about what had gone wrong since lead poisoned their water and a generation of the city's children—a crisis that, five years later, still hasn't been entirely resolved. Of course, this was O'Rourke having a searching conversation, so a staffer was squeezed into the corner livestreaming the exchange almost from the moment he'd walked in the door carrying groceries. Wally, the family dog, barked in the other room—"He's damaged from the water," Mae Collins explained. Wally was still drinking out of a bowl filled from the faucet long after the Collins parents realized they needed to keep their children away from the taps. The dog's hair went white, and, according to his owners, he's now angry and on edge all the time.

It's one thing to talk about government failure. It's another, O'Rourke believes, to speak directly to potential Michigan voters about what the Flint water crisis has meant for their homes and their lives and their communities—to hold up for the camera the jugs of water they have to buy just to make pasta. At home in Texas, the candidate is the cook, but his wife, Amy O'Rourke, took the lead in Flint on Wednesday night. (He did chop the onions and came back to add all the pieces to the sauce.) He joked about throwing a piece of spaghetti against the wall to see whether it would stick. Instead, he grabbed a piece and sucked it in over a few bites: approved. "We got it just in time!" he said.

They took their time cooking dinner; no one was in a rush to eat. His team brought pie and a chocolate cake for dessert. They said he wanted time to really get to know the Collins family. Other candidates were in debate prep, but this was how O'Rourke spent a long night six days before a debate, just 70 miles away in Detroit, that his biggest supporters agree is crucial for turning around what might prove to be the most drastic drop in a Democratic presidential campaign since Howard Dean screamed his way into political history in 2004.

Media coverage has gone from "Betomania"—the national excitement over his tight Senate race against Ted Cruz last year, the one that led Barack Obama to say he saw himself in O'Rourke—to how he's going to "bring back Betomania." On Wednesday, I was the only reporter with him in this Flint family's kitchen as he drained the boiled water and added butter to the noodles. ("That's the secret," he told the livestream audience.)

Out on the trail, O'Rourke has talked up how he was counted out in 2005, during his first city-council race in El Paso, Texas, or when he won his House seat in a primary against an incumbent in 2012. "The biggest misconception about me, given where we are in the polls right now, is that our chances have narrowed and diminished in this race," he insisted earlier Wednesday in Detroit at the NAACP convention, which had invited him and seven other candidates to the state.

O'Rourke's second-quarter fundraising total, announced two weeks ago, started to cement the sense of flop from polls that had him down to 1 or 2 percent, after being in third place when he announced in March he was running. He raised $3.6 million from April through June, meaning that after raising a blowout $6.1 million in his first 24 hours in the race, he picked up just $6.9 million in the three and a half months that followed. O'Rourke and his aides know how much is riding on the second debate next week, but they're also struggling with what to do: He became a national name partly based on a viral video of him defending Colin Kaepernick's kneeling during the national anthem. Re-creating that in a rapid-fire, multi-podium debate is pretty much impossible.

Plus, he has to compete directly with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whom he'll share the stage with for the first time on Tuesday night. Both candidates are young white guys (O'Rourke is 46, Buttigieg 37), branding themselves as the bright, shiny future of the Democratic Party. Buttigieg's explosion tracks with O'Rourke's implosion. Any hopes O'Rourke has of rising again may depend on Buttigieg collapsing, which he shows no signs of doing; his polling has remained decent, and he raised $24.8 million for the second quarter, more than anyone else running.

[Read: Pete Buttigieg is ready to talk about racial inequality]

They're not that similar—it's heart versus head. O'Rourke is the inspired storyteller, Buttigieg the precision analyst. O'Rourke nannied and chased dreams of being in a band after graduating from college; Buttigieg was a Rhodes scholar and went on to work at McKinsey. O'Rourke sees the future of America in the cross-border swirl of El Paso and new Democrats in Texas; Buttigieg sees it in the Rust Belt turnaround of South Bend and forgotten Democrats in Indiana. Nevertheless, many people watching the race closely—including on each campaign—do not see room for both candidates.

They have different styles on the trail. O'Rourke drove to the Homestead detention facility the morning after the first debate in Miami. Surrounded by a clump of reporters, he mounted a stepladder and waved a large paper heart, calling out to the detainees in Spanish. Buttigieg went the next morning with four other presidential candidates and spoke about how Americans deserved to know what horrors their tax dollars are going toward. Afterward, he stopped for a long CNN appearance with the camp as the backdrop, and was rushed into his car for the next campaign stop without realizing that the frustrated advocates had wanted him to climb the ladder too.

Last week, as O'Rourke dug into his plate of spaghetti, I asked him what he made of Buttigieg. "He comes across to me as a very thoughtful, very smart person. And that's—that's definitely my superficial takeaway," he said. When I asked Buttigieg to talk about O'Rourke, he declined through an aide.

Of course, Buttigieg isn't the only one in O'Rourke's way in the scramble to get in the mix with the leading candidates. Among the most obvious others is Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is also talking up human connections and the need to come together. Booker was in Flint on Wednesday afternoon too, though without any public events—he was meeting with Mayor Karen Weaver and local state Representative Sheldon Neeley (who's also the head of the black legislative caucus). He walked through the farmers' market and an arcade with Little Miss Flint. (Booker beat her at Street Fighter; she beat him at Ms. Pac-Man.)

[Read: Cory Booker's one-state plan]

O'Rourke is sensitive to the criticism that he is superficial and his campaign is thin on policy plans. He has released several big proposals—on immigration reform, on a caregiver tax credit, on tackling structural inequity in education. "I talk about a $500 billion permanent education fund and $20 to $25 billion that spins off every year that's invested in addressing the gap in equity funding for majority-minority schools. Does that connect with you? I don't know—maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. Maybe those are all abstractions and numbers." He began to trail off. The most succinct explanation I've heard O'Rourke give of what he thinks his campaign is about came at the beginning of June, in South Carolina, when he had just a few minutes onstage to make his case at Representative Jim Clyburn's fish fry. O'Rourke told the crowd he was "making sure that the full story of the United States of America is told to the people of the United States of America—because we know that when everyone's story is included in our national story, it is only then that we can right the wrongs and set this country on the right path."

As he sat in a folding chair under a tent on the Collinses' driveway in Flint, O'Rourke brought up the civil-rights movement, and how laws changed only when people saw the protests in carefully captured encounters on TV. "I want to do everything I can to bring those stories forward and also tell them. I think that's how we connect as humans," O'Rourke told me.

This is both philosophical and practical to him.

"I can only say that personal connection is fundamental. I just don't know enough about the other candidates to dish on them and say they're all numbers and policies, because I just don't know," O'Rourke told me. "That's how I've always connected, when people have shared, or other policy makers have shared a story—even just reading history, [Lyndon Johnson] talking about the class he taught in Cotulla, Texas. You can tell there's an emotional connection. Those Mexican American children he knew really didn't have the same shot that he did as a white kid in that state, and he knew civil rights was the way to begin to address that. That's powerful stuff for me."

A couple of hours earlier, at the NAACP convention in Detroit, O'Rourke told the story of a black man, Lawrence Nixon, who had shown up at an El Paso firehouse in 1924 with his poll-tax receipt and was turned away. He finished by talking about Thelma White, also from El Paso, who attempted to integrate Western Texas College. Thurgood Marshall was one of her lawyers when she sued the state to be admitted.

Buttigieg spoke right after O'Rourke at the NAACP event. He talked about the "journey of South Bend," how there had been no "recognizable promotion or accountability information" for the police department when he'd come in as mayor, and how he'd worked to create that system, starting by hiring the first African American person as corporation counsel. He touched on his extensive "Douglass Plan" for black economic empowerment. Twice he mentioned that he thinks racial divisions could unravel America, a line he's repeated since a white police officer killed a black man in South Bend last month, setting off weeks of community protests and outrage.

Afterward, Buttigieg flew to California for fundraising events and to tour Vector90, a co-working space in Los Angeles founded by the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot on the street in March. O'Rourke drove to an event in Flint at 100K Ideas, a business incubator with a hipster vibe. Aleah Glory Phillips, a 20-year-old aspiring musician, told him that she wanted to be in a punk band, too, and tour the country. "Do it!" O'Rourke told her. "Put everything in the car and drive."

"I'll settle for Bernie, I'll settle for Biden—but he seems dope, he seems cool," Phillips told me afterward. He seems relatable, she said, loving that he loves The Clash.

Two older women, Claire McClinton and Laura Macintyre, stood behind Phillips in line for photos. They griped about the location; a fancy place like that was hardly the real Flint, where about 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, McClinton said, lamenting that the questions weren't about what was happening in town. But, she told me, she still kind of liked him.

"He was different from all the people who come here, where they do all the talking," McClinton said. "At least he listened."

Over his spaghetti a few hours later, I asked him whether the idea of President O'Rourke felt more distant these days, or less.

"It seems more possible, the more people I meet, the more people in Flint, Michigan, who come out and tell me, 'I've been supporting you from day one, and I'm counting on you and I love the way that you're doing this—please keep it up,'" O'Rourke told me. "Every person I meet adds to my belief in this being possible, and at the end of the day, that's what I have."

O'Rourke promised David Collins he'd be back. "Next time I'll grill for you—I make a great flank steak. It's great grilling weather," he said. "Tacos, if you wanted, because it's an El Paso thing."

Impeachment, but Without the Moral Clarity

Posted: 27 Jul 2019 08:54 AM PDT

On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee dropped a bombshell: The committee's Democrats are beginning an impeachment inquiry against the president of the United States. You could be forgiven if you didn't notice.

Members of the committee majority, led by Chairman Jerry Nadler, crowded together in front of a lectern to unveil their next steps following the testimony Wednesday of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. What began as an announcement of high-profile lawsuits building on that testimony quickly devolved into a confused back-and-forth with reporters as Nadler and his colleagues repeatedly insisted they were not beginning impeachment proceedings before admitting that, yes, they were basically doing just that.

"Impeachment isn't a binary thing," argued Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, the committee's vice chair. "What we've been saying, what we've been doing, is starting a process. We're engaging in an investigation to see if we should recommend articles of impeachment … We started it some months ago, in some ways."

"The committee is exercising its authority to investigate all of these scandals and to decide what to do about them, which could include articles of impeachment," said Nadler—though he also emphasized that this wasn't the same as an impeachment inquiry: "If an impeachment inquiry is if you're considering only impeachment, that's not what we're doing."

Then again, Representative Jamie Raskin insisted, "I'd say we are in an impeachment investigation." And in an opinion piece published in The Atlantic Friday evening, Scanlon and three other members of the Judiciary Committee—David Cicilline, Pramila Jayapal, and Veronica Escobar—declared, "We will move forward with the impeachment process."

Just days before, the committee's Democratic majority had questioned Mueller with rigor and clarity, driving home the key message: Donald Trump had committed acts of obstruction of justice, they chorused, and if he had not been the president, he would have been charged with a crime. The force of their arguments was self-evident. During the press conference, though, that clarity evaporated. In shuffling toward impeachment proceedings, the Democrats are starting, however hesitantly, to take up their constitutional responsibilities in the face of what they themselves recognize as the president's continued abuses of power. But their hesitation strips away the moral clarity in defense of the rule of law that impeachment proceedings might otherwise have offered.

The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives has test-driven a range of arguments against the initiation of an impeachment inquiry or outright impeachment itself. At first, before the release of the Mueller report, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that Trump is "just not worth it," worrying that impeachment would divide the country. The president "wants to be impeached so he can be exonerated by the Senate," she later suggested. Yet at the same time, she called his actions "villainous to the Constitution."

The muddled nature of the Democratic position was on full display following Mueller's testimony. At a press conference after Mueller's testimony, Pelosi declared that Trump's actions would have resulted in indictment had he not been president, and accused him of engaging in a "cover-up"—but she did not change her view on impeachment. Standing alongside her was House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who that day had accused the president of criminal conduct and "disloyalty" to his country—but who, the next morning, suggested that he had not yet reached the point of supporting impeachment, though the president's defiance of a court order might "push [him] over the edge."

The basic message is that the movers and shakers among the House Democrats believe the president to be a criminal who is disloyal to his country and abusive of his office, and yet somehow his conduct is not quite bad enough to justify the constitutional remedy designed to address the problem posed by such a leader. Pelosi and Schiff have both argued that impeachment proceedings are too dire a remedy to use in a situation in which the Senate would fail to convict an impeached president. But this is a separate argument, and to some extent one at cross-purposes, from their hints that Trump's actions so far just don't rise to a level that warrants impeachment. There may be a clear, forceful line of logic somewhere in here, but the House leadership has instead dabbled in a range of arguments while committing to none.

Friday's House Judiciary Committee press conference flipped that dynamic on its head. The committee is moving toward impeachment proceedings—or, perhaps, has already begun them—with the same confusion that characterizes Pelosi's opposition to it.

There is a logic behind Nadler's approach, clarified by the stated reason for convening the press conference in the first place: The committee announced that it had filed an application for a court to unseal grand-jury material contained in, but redacted from, the Mueller report. Such material is protected by law from release under all but the rarest of circumstances. Because of a quirk in a recent court decision, the committee's hand may well be strengthened in obtaining that material if it can claim to be engaged in an impeachment inquiry, rather than just in the normal process of congressional oversight. In this sense, a press conference establishing that the committee is considering whether to bring articles of impeachment is a necessary step in beginning this litigation.

Pelosi reportedly signed off on the language used at the committee's press conference, suggesting that she and the Judiciary Committee may have reached some kind of compromise. Soft-pedaling an impeachment inquiry allows the committee to reap the benefits of beginning proceedings in a forum in which it's helpful—that is, the courts—while mitigating whatever damage Democratic leadership worries those proceedings would incur in the political space. The speaker has voiced concern that "the I-word," as Trump reportedly calls it, could backfire in the form of increased political support for the president. By fudging whether an inquiry actually exists or not, the committee might make it more difficult for that inquiry to be turned against the Democrats. Thus have Pelosi and Nadler split the baby.

But all these evasions and half measures on the part of the Judiciary Committee add up to what appears to be an absence of conviction. When Solomon suggested that the proverbial baby be cut in two, the point was that the woman who agreed did not actually care all that much about the fate of the child.

Impeachment can carry great moral force. In 1974, the constitutional scholar Charles Black described the role of Congress in impeachment proceedings as "determining finally some of the weightiest of constitutional questions"—what the Constitution means when it says that a president may be removed for "high crimes and misdemeanors," and which actions by a president are so vile or unacceptable that the country can no longer move forward under that person's leadership. The act of beginning an impeachment inquiry is an opportunity to consider what the United States is and what it should be or could be. It is a declaration of constitutional and historical meaning.

If Friday's press conference was a declaration of anything, it was lost in the confusion. The trouble with bringing urgent moral questions down to the level of political horse-trading is that the urgency dissolves, and with it the sense of moral crisis that House Democrats worked so hard over the course of Mueller's testimony to build up.

Is moral clarity too much to expect? The process of impeachment is a political judgment, assigned by the Constitution to the branch of government that is both the most politically sensitive and, with its hundreds of members, the most challenged by the problems of collective action. So if the House shuffles awkwardly in the direction of impeachment proceedings, maybe shuffling is the best it can manage. And three months after the release of the Mueller report, any movement toward seriously considering impeachment is both welcome and long overdue.

Then again, the confusion of the press conference stems in part from the sheer strangeness of the prize the Judiciary Committee has invoked impeachment in order to obtain: that is, the grand-jury material. The odds in court are uncertain, and the redacted material makes up a minuscule portion of a report that, as Democrats have emphasized again and again, is profoundly unflattering to the president. It's hard to imagine what kind of smoking gun could be hidden behind redactions. Anyway, the evidence table is already littered with exhibit after damning exhibit. At best, the grand-jury material is like the Maltese Falcon: the desired object that has no real significance, but moves the plot forward. At worst, it's another way for the House to kick the can on presidential accountability down the road.

In watching Trump's rage alongside what looks like Democratic dithering, what comes to mind is an unflattering line from the poet William Butler Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." The only hope is that the House will continue to slouch toward impeachment.

The Coming End of an Era at NASA

Posted: 27 Jul 2019 04:05 PM PDT

From 1969 to 1972, 12 men walked on the moon. Four of them are still alive. No one has been back since, and it's unclear when anyone might return.

The four moonwalkers were in their mid to late thirties when they flew millions of miles to visit Earth's celestial companion. Today, in their 80s, their hair is the color of the lunar surface. They remain in the public eye, giving talks and interviews, especially now, as the historic Apollo missions begin marking their 50th anniversaries. But someday the moonwalkers will leave us, taking with them the living memory of a transcendent experience the rest of us can hardly fathom.

For the youngest generations, the idea of the moon landings, captured in crackly black-and-white footage, might seem as distant as the moon itself.

The moon was a weird place to be.

Aldrin, now 89 years old, felt disoriented as he took in the sight. "On the Earth when one looks at the horizon, it appears flat; on the moon, so much smaller than the Earth and quite without high terrain, the horizon in all directions visibly curved away from us," he wrote in a memoir in 1974.

Thanks to the airless environment and the lunar soil, as fine as talcum powder, the astronauts never had to worry about getting lost. "Everywhere you walk, you left your footprints," said Charlie Duke, who visited in 1972, at an event last year. "You just turn around and follow your tracks back."

David Scott, who became the first person to drive on another world in 1971, likened the undisturbed landscape to a picture by the photographer Ansel Adams. "There was no color, but great contrast between the brightly illuminated surface and the black shadow of the mountain slopes and craters where no sunlight fell," he wrote in a 2004 memoir. And the smell! "The moon turned out to have a slightly metallic smell, almost like gunpowder, which pervaded the [lunar module] for the remainder of our trip," Scott recalled.

These experiences and others are well documented—in grainy footage and scratchy audio, flight transcripts, books, documentaries, Hollywood films, and countless news reports and interviews. There's a wonderful little clip of Jack Schmitt, one of the four remaining moonwalkers, pleading with Mission Control to let him throw his hammer into the lunar sky before getting into the lander to go home. Schmitt, 84 years old now, is the first and only scientist—a geologist—to have visited the moon, and it must have seemed appropriate to leave behind his profession's tool of choice. "Look at that!" he exclaimed after the flight directors assented and the hammer tumbled, end over end, a small white smudge moving in an arc over the hulking gray background. Schmitt had spent a total of 22 hours outside the capsule, helping to produce the biggest haul of lunar samples.

[Read: The best banter from Apollo 11]

But these records are not as evocative as hearing from the moonwalkers themselves, says Charlie Bolden, a former space-shuttle astronaut who served as NASA administrator in the Obama administration. When the last moonwalker dies, "it will be like the day we lose the last veteran of World War II—and we're perilously close to that day—or the last Korean War veteran," Bolden says. "You will lose any semblance of opportunity to listen to people and hear their firsthand experience."

Bolden had that chance in 1980, as a new NASA recruit from the Marine Corps. The Apollo astronauts would stop by the NASA astronaut office in Houston once a year for their annual physical exams and reminisce with the newbies. Alan Bean, the Apollo moonwalker who died last year at age 86, was a mentor to Bolden's class during training.

"Here's a guy who had walked on the moon, who gave up a year of his life when he could be doing all other kinds of things, to shepherd around these snotty-nosed kids who aspired to be astronauts," Bolden says. "You know how you see the day-school caregivers walking around with the kids on a rope? That's kind of the way it felt."

The Apollo astronauts' memories of the surface are easier to preserve than the distinct cognitive experience of looking back at the Earth. Some astronauts who travel into Earth's orbit say they come home with a distinct shift of perspective on the planet. From up there, this ball of swirling blues and whites, suspended in the inky blackness of space, looks fragile, especially against the perilous backdrop of climate change. The effect would only be magnified on the moon, where Earth appears like a gleaming marble. "We have seen it from space as whole and bright and beautiful; we have seen it from the surface of the moon as not very large and somehow vulnerable," Aldrin wrote in his book. "With all its imperfections, it is a great place to come from and an even greater place to go back to."

Joan Wong; Photo courtesy of Getty

The Apollo astronauts who had touched the surface of the moon were walking testaments to human achievement. They seemed to ooze unalloyed inspiration. When you ask people to consider the morbid, hypothetical reality of a world without them, most often you hear about that inspiration—and how depressing it would be to lose it.

An estimated 600 million people around the world watched Aldrin and Neil Armstrong descend that ladder on live television. Pamela Melroy, a former shuttle astronaut who helped assemble the International Space Station, was among them, a 7-year-old girl on vacation with her family on the Jersey shore. "We all watched Star Trek together—let's put it that way—so we were all kind of nerdy anyway," Melroy says. "I don't remember what I thought at the moment, but I do know that within two years, I had made the decision that I wanted to be an astronaut."

Melroy says she dreads the day the last Apollo moonwalker dies. "I sure as heck hope that we will have somebody who has walked on the moon since before the last one passes away," she says.

President Richard Nixon correctly predicted in 1972, as the crew of the last lunar mission flew home, that "this may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon." But after pulling off the feat—six times in three and a half years, at that—it seemed hard to imagine the possibility that no one would ever return.

[Read: What is the Apollo 11 landing site like now? ]

The current White House has instructed NASA to send a crewed mission to the lunar surface in 2024 and has asked Congress for the extra money to pay for it. The effort is not guaranteed, and the roadblocks are numerous, ranging from technical risks to political shifts, and another country may beat it there. The next crew, should it ever arrive, probably won't resemble the astronauts of the Apollo era, who were white men with similar educational and military backgrounds. The Trump administration says NASA's new Artemis program, named for Apollo's sister in Greek mythology, will deliver the first woman to the surface.

Bolden hopes the crew includes people of color and astronauts from other nations too. He watched the first moon landing in Mississippi, where he was in jet training for the Marine Corps. He was mesmerized, but the event didn't inspire him to become an astronaut.

"I'd grown up in the segregated South," Bolden says. "Becoming an astronaut was not something in the list of things that a young black kid from South Carolina did, in my mind."

He applied to the NASA astronaut corps a decade later, at the urging of Ron McNair, a member of NASA's 1978 class of astronauts, the first new group since the Apollo program. McNair was the second African American man to fly to space. He died in the Challenger disaster six years after Bolden got the job.

"I needed to see somebody like me," Bolden says now.

In the past few rounds of astronaut applications, prospective candidates cited the space-shuttle missions, not the moon landings, as motivation, according to those who reviewed them. This year, Millennials will surpass Baby Boomers as the largest adult population in the United States, according to an analysis of government data by the Pew Research Center. The Apollo program was not the defining moment of space exploration for members of this generation, born from 1981 to 1996. They remember their teachers wheeling bulky televisions into classrooms to watch a space-shuttle launch or tuning into livestreams on their laptops to watch a SpaceX rocket fly. They summon images of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos more readily than of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

When the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth, they were unlike any other travelers in history. But they still had to follow the rules governing entry to the United States, which explains the existence of perhaps the most ridiculous copy of a customs entry form on record.

Where the form requested a departure location, NASA wrote "moon." The cargo was "moon rock and moon dust samples." As for whether the travelers experienced any conditions on board that could lead to the spread of disease, NASA wrote, "to be determined." Scientists and doctors had no idea what the lunar environment could do to the human body, so Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins spent a month in quarantine.

The document is delightful and silly, but it marked a shift in a millennia-old perception of the flat orb of light in the night sky. It made clear to travelers who would never leave Earth that the moon was a real place, somewhere people could truly go. Not only that, but they could do things there.

[Read: The most compelling photo of the moon landing]

Some scientists thought the surface would be soft, and the astronauts would sink, but it held them well, and the dust clung to their spacesuits and drove them nearly crazy trying to wipe it off. The astronauts scaled the gentle slopes and went for a drive. They enjoyed a quiet, freeze-dried meal, slipped into their sleeping bags, and pulled the shades down in their capsule to soften the radiant sunlight bouncing off the Earth. And when they left, their footprints remained, preserved in the unmoving regolith for tens of thousands of years.

The Apollo astronauts made a home on another world. For a brief moment, humankind extended beyond the boundaries of its planet, "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam," in Carl Sagan's words. Without the moonwalkers, its jurisdiction shrinks back, toward this one familiar planet, which soon could be the only place that living people have set foot.