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The Viral Stupidity of Politicians’ TikTok Bans

Lawmakers across the country are looking to kill off the social media platform for many of the same sins that Big Tech commits regularly.

Jonathan Raa/Getty Images

What are the biggest problems that the people of Rapid City, South Dakota, have to face? I’d argue that its citizens should be most concerned that the sole reason the state seems to exist is to provide a haven for oligarchs and tax cheats. But not everyone agrees—and in what is becoming a pitched mayoral race in the state’s second-most-populous city, it’s a matter of hot debate. If you listen to city Councilwoman Laura Armstrong, who has already announced her intention to run, she’ll tell you the biggest issues are crime and meth. But a potential rival, her council colleague Jason Salamun, has identified a different villain: TikTok.

Over the past few months, TikTok—the social media platform that Gen Z has taken to in droves and which their aunts don’t quite understand—has earned the opprobrium of lawmakers near and far. The Wall Street Journal, which reported on these Rapid City goings-on, asserts that concerns over the platform have gone “from Washington to Main Street”—and with a bipartisan sheen to boot. It’s hardly the first time a tech company has drawn the critical eye of policymakers. But what critics of TikTok claim is a matter of national security looks, upon closer inspection, to be a familiar concern about privacy that could just as easily be levied—and should be levied—against a whole array of U.S.-based tech companies.

The political war on TikTok has been brewing for some time, but it ramped up in mid-December when bipartisan legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate that would ban TikTok outright in the United States. That this measure suddenly arrived on the scene with such broad approval was, to me, a red flag. Bipartisan legislation typically falls into three categories: the naming of post offices, the funding of unwinnable wars, and stupid pieces of stunt legislation. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the name of the bill: Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act, or ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act. As my colleague Matt Ford has written, acronym bills are typically the work of the unhinged or the unserious.

Nevertheless, it does seem as though this bipartisan and bicameral desire to limit TikTok’s ability to, say, briefly cement Louis Theroux’s status as a hip-hop icon, was born of bona fide real-world concerns. As NBC News’s Rebecca Shabad reported, lawmakers took the step after receiving “warnings from the FBI director and cybersecurity experts who have said China could use the social media platform for spying”; Buzzfeed reported in June that China-based employees of TikTok’s parent company had accessed the nonpublic data of U.S. users despite assurances to the contrary. The ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act, put forth in the Senate by Marco Rubio, sought “to protect Americans from foreign adversaries who might use certain social media to surveil Americans, learn sensitive data about them, and spread influence campaigns or propaganda.”

But TechDirt’s Karl Bode took a dim view of Rubio’s proposal, and with good reason. “For several years,” he wrote, “we’ve noted how most of the calls to ban TikTok are bad faith bullshit made by a rotating crop of characters that not only couldn’t care less about consumer privacy, but are directly responsible for the privacy oversight vacuum TikTok (and everybody else) exploits.” Bode noted the dubious legal underpinnings of the measure but found a larger fault at the core of the proposal: “For decades the GOP (and more than a few Democrats) have worked tirelessly to erode [Federal Trade Commission] privacy enforcement authority and funding, while fighting tooth and nail against absolutely any meaningful privacy legislation for the Internet era.”

This door has been open for tech companies of all stripes to abuse in similar fashion. “If you actually care about national security,” wrote Bode, “holding all companies and data brokers accountable for privacy abuses should be your priority. A basic, helpful, well-written privacy law should be your priority. A working, staffed, properly funded FTC should be your priority.”

We have some idea what a more rigorous regulatory regime looks like. European authorities this week dropped hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fines on Mark Zuckerberg as part of the EU’s larger effort to bring Meta into compliance with the privacy regulations of its member nations. That we don’t have this level of enforcement in America is down to the fact that firms like Meta spend a lot of time and money influencing our lawmakers to retain a status quo in which they have broad latitude to do the very things TikTok stands accused of doing: surveilling Americans, acquiring sensitive data about them, and subjecting them to influence campaigns and propaganda.

What’s likely to happen once all the shouting is over? As Bode notes, a stateside TikTok ban is not going to prevent China’s exploits in the field of data acquisition: “You could ban TikTok immediately and the Chinese government could simply buy this (and more) data from a rotating crop of dodgy data brokers and assorted middlemen.” Meanwhile, the tech industry’s surveillance-capitalism panopticon will continue its work. Lawmakers could take bigger and more effective efforts to secure our privacy, but until then we’ll get a few brief and repetitive seconds of feckless and ineffectual parliamentary song-and-dance from lawmakers across the land. How very TikTokian.

The Next Step in the Fight for the Good Life

How Democrats can heed the lessons of 2022 in the year to come

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This week, The New Republic will be devoting some of our time to looking back at the villains, ghouls, and do-gooders who shaped the past year in politics. A new Scoundrel of the Year will take their place alongside such luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg and Ron DeSantis, and the entire TNR staff will be making contributions to the cause. In looking back on the work TNR has published in 2022, I keep coming back to one big idea that I’ve tried to nurture on these pages: the necessary fight for the Good Life.

Longtime readers may remember how I tried to elucidate the borrowed-from-Keynes concept of the Good Life as a means of offering a then-wayward Democratic Party a way to get its messaging unstuck. To my mind, the elements of the Good Life boiled down to this: “More shared prosperity to reduce economic inequality; more widely distributed political power so that people have more control over their own lives; more political stability to keep upheaval at bay; and, most important of all, more time with the people we love.”

These are simple ideas that can inform a broad compact with America—one that would recover wealth that was stolen from us and provide a more just and equitable future. Democrats, of course, didn’t end up taking the beating many expected in the midterms, in part because they told a good story about democracy, the fountain from which the Good Life flows. They’ll have an opportunity to keep advancing this vision. Some of my favorite pieces from the past year might help light the way.

Democrats should stop panicking about elections, Walter Shapiro argued: The election “reminds Democrats … that it is time to go back to trusting the American people.” A good place to begin—but there is work to be done. As Joe Lowndes and Daniel Martinez HoSang documented at length, the GOP has made inroads with candidates of color, and Democrats have to take that threat seriously. I’ve urged Democrats to be more proactive, rather than waiting to benefit from GOP wreckage.

But when Republicans do wreck things, it’s good to go on offense. Meredith Shiner’s clarion call for Democratic action after Roe was gutted is a good reminder that time is of the essence in an emergency. One Democrat who spoke the loudest about countering the threats of far-right extremists—and one of the few who seemed to step out in support of the increasingly threatened LGBTQ community—was Michigan’s Mallory McMorrow, who did one of my favorite interviews with our editor, Michael Tomasky.

You can’t have the Good Life without a thriving economy, and while Democrats may not get any of their economic ideas to Joe Biden’s desk in 2023, they need to keep pushing for them, even if ultimately they’re getting voted down by the GOP House (which has its own benefits). One big policy to push: a revived and extended child tax credit, which, as Grace Segers has relentlessly documented, provided massive gains in the war against poverty. The Biden administration has, for the most part, helped to build a labor economy that favors workers and boosts the democratizing influence of unions. The president backed the wrong horse in the recent rail strike fiasco, but Steven Greenhouse provided a blueprint for his administration to get back on the right track.

As TNR editor Michael Tomasky noted, Democrats actually have a pretty good economic tale to tell—but they “need to tell a sharper economic story that identifies enemies of working people’s economic interests by name.” The coming year should be a boom time for shaming the worst of the worst, from the private equity firms sucking the American dream dry to the corporate interests that are keeping ordinary people down, as Sarah Miller wrote so eloquently.

Naturally, the biggest enemy of the Good Life continues to be the GOP and a conservative movement that, as Graham Gallagher illuminated at length, is only getting stranger, more off-putting, and more un-American by the day. We’ve worked hard to chronicle this transformation: from Laura Jedeed and Ana Marie Cox’s on-the-ground coverage of a truly cracked CPAC to Melissa Gira Grant’s constant chronicling of the way the QAnon movement keeps burrowing itself deeper into the halls of power.

Perhaps the most important story that defenders of the Good Life will need to tell over the next year is that Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020 and his weakened profile at the end of this year’s midterm cycle don’t point to the return of a normal, credible, democracy-minded Republican Party. Osita Nwanevu wrote:

The Republican Party understands the climate its rhetoric and strategies have created kills people and will continue to do so; it remains important to Republican politicians that the men being provoked to murder have the right tools at their disposal. It’s of some comfort that many Americans have come to see the right’s degeneracy for what it is and that Republicans continue to pay an electoral penalty for it. But given the mounting structural advantages the GOP enjoys within the federal system, this election barely qualifies as a setback.

We’re not out of the woods yet, but the world only spins forward. On to a new year: a new chance to cut, a new chance to cure.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

Hit Corporate America Where It Hertz

The rental car agency is getting away with subjecting its customers to false arrests and imprisonment. How bad do things have to get before there are real consequences for bad behavior?

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

What kind of criminal activity must a corporation commit to face real consequences—for the justice system to compel the company into nonexistence or jail its executives? In recent weeks, there has been some cheerful news on that front: Sunny Balwani, the president of Theranos, will join his former flame and company founder Elizabeth Holmes in a lengthy prison sentence—a deserved punishment for their outlandish lies about their fraudulent blood-extraction machine.

But for every Theranos, there’s a Wells Fargo, who readers might remember as the ne plus ultra example of a bad bank, its executives seemingly bent on finding newer and more innovative ways to scam its customers. Wells Fargo has been given permission to constantly apologize for its wrongdoing and immediately return to it, with no one facing real consequences. The truth is, instances like Theranos, where clear-cut corporate criminals face clear-cut punishments, are considerably rare. All of which brings us to Hertz, which this week joined the ranks of those who’ve gotten away with egregious malfeasance.

Hertz, a car rental firm that’s joined at the balance sheet with several other well-known brands (Thrifty, Dollar), made some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it news: It was forced to “pay about $168 million to settle disputes with hundreds of customers,” reported The New York Times. “Disputes” puts it too politely. Over the course of many years, the company sicced the police on its own customers, who were wrongly accused of having stolen vehicles. This was all due to Hertz’s error: The company mistakenly misclassified cars as stolen or failed to account for customers making payments to extend their rentals.

As CBS News reported a year ago, dozens of customers were wrongly subjected to terrifying encounters with police. But some customers were subjected to even worse. According to the Times, one woman who was arrested, despite having paid her rental extension, was jailed for 37 days—during which time she was “separated from her fiancé and two children, missed her nursing school graduation and discovered she was pregnant.” Another renter, after learning there “was a warrant for his arrest on charges that he stole a Hertz car, had actually paid for and returned the vehicle.” But after he missed a hearing date, he was “arrested again, and jailed for six and a half months.”

Now a $168 million fine might seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the company’s $7.3 billion in revenue and $19.7 billion in assets at the end of 2021. Additionally, no company executives have been punished for what amounts to a wholly fraudulent exploitation of the criminal justice system.

Hertz was a troubled firm beyond the crimes it committed; the company filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic, and its employees are thus familiar with their jobs being at risk. But this episode still provides an illuminating example of why our labor politics needs a big rethink. Firms do things all the time that put jobs at risk. Sometimes they commit crimes. Sometimes an idiot just acquires a company and starts firing everyone who won’t join his inane ego trip. An economy in which employers have to compete for labor allows workers to be more mobile and more capable of leaving bad jobs behind, which can help soften the blow whenever the justice system lowers the boom on bad corporate actors. Moreover, this episode is simply the latest and greatest example of why it pays to have a unionized workforce.

But an even better solution would be to promote and enact policies granting workers larger ownership stakes in companies like Hertz. This would give workforces that are already too vulnerable to the errant whims of overpaid executives more transparency into the decisions cascading from the company boardroom as well as a better opportunity to prevent bad, costly actions that put workers’ jobs at risk. Democrats have, in the recent past, proposed such ideas; as The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu noted in May 2020, polling from YouGov indicated that there was broad support for them among voters, including for “policies incentivizing the voluntary transfer of ownership stakes to employees, and even making companies with more than 250 employees grant those employees half of their stock over time.”

Without the emergence of a course-altering remedy, we will be stuck with a status quo in which we have to hope that slap-on-the-wrist financial penalties will be enough to steer our corporate masters onto more just and prudent paths. The New York Times’ reporting offered some insight into how that will play out at Hertz: “On Monday, Hertz said it believed it would recover a ‘meaningful portion’ of the settlement amount from its insurance carriers and that the $168 million would be paid by the end of this year.” The system works, just not for you.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The GOP’s “New Direction”: More Extremism

If you think that Republicans have learned any lessons from their disappointing midterm election showing, think again.

William Edward/Getty Images
Far-right white nationalist Nick Fuentes recently made news after dining with former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

During the Trump era, one of the best running jokes was the media’s near-desperate search for signs that the president was shedding his obstreperous tendencies and settling into a new, earnestly presidential tone. Every moment when Trump managed not to opt for the maximally rancid reaction was one in which, perhaps, the “new tone” was taking hold, thanks to some phantasmal moderating influence that was sure to carry the day.

Alas, this dream never materialized, but that’s not to say evolution didn’t occur: Trump swiftly adopted to life as a bog-standard Beltway Republican. And his party grew more comfortable with its standard-bearer’s political aesthetics—all the better to please its base.

But now that the GOP’s big midterm ambitions have fallen apart, political touts are once again trying to conjure a “new tone” narrative into existence; one in which the Republican Party has learned the error of its ways. Some conservative luminaries, after all, have demonstrated a reluctance to fully jump back into Trump’s arms. Former Pence aide Marc Short suggested on CNN over the weekend that something new is afoot: “Since the election in 2020, [Trump] has descended deeper into the heart of darkness. It’s another reason why I think Republicans are looking in a different direction in 2024.”

There’s little doubt that Pence, who is allegedly running for president, would indeed require Republicans to look in a different direction, considering most of them think of Pence as either someone who did too much to enable Trump’s worst tendencies or someone who did too little to keep him in power. But outside of the wishful thinking of Pence and others, there is scant evidence that conservatives truly are ready to change their ways. Has everyone forgotten that Republicans and their donors went to elaborate lengths over the past two years to enact voter suppression laws and boost the political ambitions of election deniers? Because the voters sure didn’t.

More to the point, let’s recall that the context for this past weekend’s expressions of agita over Trump was his decision to break bread with two flamboyant bigots: rapper Kanye West and far-right media gadfly Nick Fuentes. Here was a golden opportunity for this change in direction: Trump’s presidential rivals were gifted the chance to jump into an “at least I’m not a rabid antisemite” lane ahead of the shadow primary.

Sadly, that lane remains unoccupied by any would-be 2024 aspirants. At least one Republican whose 2022 electoral fate remains hanging in the balance, Herschel Walker, is still mum on the matter of whether it was a good idea for Trump to dine with these reprobates. And it took the rest of the Republican Party a number of days to finally register some mealy-mouthed condemnations of Trump’s antics. This is hardly a surprise: An October 6 tweet from the GOP’s House Judiciary account—reading “Kanye. Elon. Trump”—gave proof through the midterms that Republicans were excited to get in on the ground floor of Kanye West’s antisemitism. (That tweet was finally taken down on Thursday shortly after West expressed an affection for Adolf Hitler during a lengthy interview on Alex Jones’ Infowars.)

Fuentes and West may never become keynote speakers at CPAC, but they’re in a decaying orbit around a party that already countenances no end of grotesqueries, from Viktor Orbán’s stoking of authoritarianism to the now regular evocations of the racist “great replacement theory” on Fox News’ prime time. And the person thought to be the heir to Trumpism, Ron DeSantis, has, if anything, grabbed Trump’s baton and sprinted off in the same direction. As Jonathan Chait recently noted in New York magazine, DeSantis “would reify [the GOP’s] Trump-era transformation” by “preserving” Trump’s extreme coalition of “QAnon supporters and insurrectionists.” DeSantis’s constant anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is central to his appeal; he has already emerged as the “Pizzagate in every city” candidate.

We needn’t wait for DeSantis, though. As The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty notes, the Republican rot is deep in Washington already: “Come January, there will be fewer Republicans left in Congress willing to speak out when Trump does what he keeps doing.… And those who have followed Trump’s example in associating themselves with extremists and their ideas will have more clout within the institution.” And if you’re looking to see exactly how concerned the Republican Party is about its poor midterm showing, the good news is that the RNC is empaneling a team to examine what went wrong. The bad news is that Blake Masters, a 2020 election denier who spent a large part of his Senate campaign cosplaying as a serial killer, is one of those tasked with divining what went wrong. Yep, folks, they’re all just trying to find the guy that did this.

There is a nonzero chance that Trump’s bid to reclaim the throne will come to naught. But let’s be real: Republicans aren’t clamoring for a moderate to take this party in a new direction. “Never Trumpers” are still verboten in the GOP, and no one within that clan seems to actually have any plan to recapture the party’s institutions, aside from heaving op-eds at it. The Republicans coming to Washington plan to stage mock trials of Hunter Biden and use the debt ceiling as a weapon to try to enact radical cuts to Social Security.

As TNR contributor Graham Gallagher recently explained, the educated elites in this party have become decadent and off-putting weirdos, in thrall to bizarre and un-American ideas that seem custom-designed to turn the stomachs of normal people. Meanwhile, the conservative movement’s media propaganda organ is regularly bleating out the same kind of rhetoric as embarrassment du jour Nick Fuentes. So are Republicans really looking for something new? The only direction this party is headed is toward the gutter; the only question is who in the media, expecting a “new tone” or a “change in direction,” will get dragged there with them.

Guess What, It’s Abolish-the-Debt-Ceiling O’Clock (Again)

If the Democrats don’t use the lame-duck session to take this economic doomsday device out of the incoming GOP’s hands, God help us all.

Paul J. Richards/Getty Images
Statues depicting Grief and History stand watch over the Capitol, ruing its denizens’ error-plagued reign.

It’s said that the conventional definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting different results. But what do you call someone who spends their time writing about insane people bent on repeating their insane mistakes, even though that person knows full well that they’ve failed in each and every one of their previous attempts to persuade the aforementioned twonks to stop the madness? Well, for now, you can call that person “me,” because here I am once again, red flags aloft and klaxons screaming, to warn about the potential disaster if Congress fails to raise, or preferably abolish, the debt ceiling. Abolishing the debt ceiling is a thing that lawmakers should have done a long time ago. They will have another chance to fix this in the upcoming lame-duck session. And they almost certainly won’t.

The midterm elections may have broken for Democrats in surprising ways, but they’re ending on very bad terms for those of us who’d prefer to avoid the apocalyptic results of a debt ceiling breach. The GOP will soon be in control of the House and will have to furnish the requisite number of votes to form a majority (presumably with all available Democrats) to stave off debt ceiling doomsday. The tight margins may yield enough votes, but this isn’t a particularly great era for “reasonable Republicans,” and so the worst-case scenario remains on the table. Unless, of course, Congress acts fast and does the deed during the upcoming lame-duck session.

But as The New Republic’s Grace Segers explained this week, the lame duck is already going to be action-packed. There are already a ton of legislative tasks that lawmakers want to try to speed through before the next Congress is sworn in, and different lawmakers attach different levels of priority to each item on their to-do list. I hate to get in the way of everyone’s particular hopes and dreams, but I must: The big thing Democrats need to do in the next few weeks is solve this looming crisis—again, preferably by abolishing the debt ceiling.

TNR readers are probably already familiar with the vagaries of the debt ceiling, but journalistic convention demands that I now furnish an “explainer,” so feel free to skip this if you are not one of the clowns currently sitting in Congress. Congress’s job is to spend taxpayer money. It does this by passing laws and allocating funds. And then, because we’re ridiculous, the legislative branch must, from time to time, affirm that it’ll honor those commitments that get laid on the nation’s balance sheet. This activity is called “raising the debt ceiling.”

Despite what you may have heard, it doesn’t add to or create any new debt. It’s just a promise to pay the bills. And it’s an important promise because if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, it could cause a default of our sovereign credit, and because a lot of the world’s economy is tethered to our own, a default could send a destructive shock wave throughout the global financial system.

It seems nuts that someone gave our ridiculous Congress an “ECONOMY GO BOOM” button, but for years everything went off without a hitch. Whenever the debt ceiling came up, lawmakers would give grandstanding speeches about the other party’s spending priorities, and a few would cast symbolic votes against raising it, knowing all the while that the votes to raise it were secure. What went wrong? Well, when President Barack Obama entered his Grand Bargain era, he raised the notion of using the debt ceiling to negotiate over bigger things. But he forgot that the Republicans were lycanthropic weirdos obsessed with lying about his birthplace and bent on making him a one-term president. So rather than enter into reasonable talks with the White House, the GOP instead enshrined debt ceiling brinkmanship as part of its party’s platform. The Republican Party has increasingly become a home to absolute nitwits with extremely kooky ideas about what might happen if the debt ceiling is breached.

Frankly, it’s nigh on deranged that Democrats didn’t abolish the debt ceiling during these past two years when they had full control of Congress and a mandate to govern. But much like how there aren’t enough Democrats willing to get rid of the filibuster, there haven’t been enough who agree that bringing a loaded gun into the chamber and debating whether it should be fired straight into the face of the global economy is a bad idea.

President Joe Biden, however, had a front-row seat to the debt ceiling chaos of the Obama administration, and he has wisely called for—wait, hold on, what the absolute fuck: It says here that Biden apparently “opposes eliminating the debt limit altogether as a means of averting future confrontations,” on the grounds that doing so would be “irresponsible.” Terrific, Biden has it precisely backward.

Action must be taken now, in the lame-duck session, to put an end to this, because the witching hour is nigh and the GOP will have strong incentives to try to tank the economy. Taking their ability to hold the debt ceiling hostage away from them is a no-brainer. And solutions, from the sublime to the ridiculous, abound: Reinstitute the Gephardt rule; take the advice of The New Republic’s Matt Ford and raise the debt ceiling to one googolplex dollars; mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin and stash it at the Treasury. We could also abolish it outright; we’re just about the only nation with a “debt ceiling,” and no one else on earth has used theirs to create a recurring Saw sequel with the global economy. Or we can do none of those things and Republicans can blow up the economy. Either way, I won’t have to write this again, so at least I have that going for me.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

Biden’s Democracy Argument Worked

The pundits thought the Democratic Party’s closing argument for the midterms was going to end in certain disaster. Swing and a miss!

Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the last two weeks of the election cycle, as the news seemed to be getting worse and worse for Democrats hoping to avoid a historic midterm election shellacking, party leaders opted to go all in on one particular theme—that democracy itself was on the ballot. Here, voters had a historic choice to make: Vote to save the republic, or squander it. Across the aisle, the GOP had marshaled an army of candidates behind election denialism and a vision of an illiberal United States. In his final campaign speech, President Joe Biden told the crowd assembled at Bowie State University in Maryland that the country was at “an inflection point.”

“We know in our bones that our democracy is at risk, and we know that this is your moment to defend it, preserve or protect it, choose it,” he said.

It was a tall order. And let’s face it, it was a little bit belated. As we’ve chronicled on these pages, Democrats haven’t always spent the past two years as democracy’s most ardent defenders. Too many senators preferred to keep the filibuster rather than get rid of it to pass the laws necessary to confront a well-organized and well-funded effort among Republicans to curb voting rights across the country. Even the Biden administration seemed dismissive at one point, referring to voting rights as just one more niche issue among many.

But when Democrats finally put the defense of democracy front and center in their midterm messaging, the wave of skepticism from the media wasn’t rooted in any past failures or prior fecklessness. Rather, it was spawned by the pundit class’s disbelief that demonstrating fealty to the ideals of our Founders was the correct thing to do to win an election.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza called Biden’s defense of democracy oration a “head-scratchingspeech and “a strategic blunder given what we know about the electorate and its priorities.” Meanwhile, Politico’s Playbook called it “important” but “puzzling” and gave a wide array of voices the freedom to criticize the decision on various grounds, from the fact that the president had already given a widely reported speech on the same subject some weeks before to the concerns of Democratic strategists like David Axelrod, who thought that “as a matter of practical politics, I doubt many Ds in marginal races are eager for [Biden] to be on TV tonight”—the idea being that his poor approval ratings made him a dubious messenger in any event.

In truth, you wouldn’t be thought entirely daft if you fretted that Democrats were, at the very least, talking over the heads of the electorate. Polls ahead of the midterms consistently showed that matters such as the January 6 attacks weren’t foremost on people’s minds; democracy defense seemed like a bad bet. But the exit polls told a different story. Per Axios: “National polling showed abortion and democracy turned out to be big issues with voters. Coverage in the run-up to midterms had focused heavily on pocketbook issues.” In other words, the Democrats’ plan worked, and the media whiffed badly in their read of the electorate’s mood.

For all the anxiety over Biden’s approval ratings, no one seemed to have considered whether the vision of the future of democracy that the GOP spent the year articulating wasn’t even more toxic. This is a party that’s embraced book bans and LGBTQ discrimination, bomb threats at children’s hospitals, and Proud Boys terrorizing drag performers. They’ve discarded the legal roots of the right to an abortion and are eyeing doing the same thing to contraception and marriage equality. Republicans have embraced violent QAnon adherents and become Viktor Orbán fanboys. Does any of this sound like the stuff normie America wants?

And if you want to talk about polarization, let’s talk about how polarizing young voters found the GOP’s message. According to exit polls, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 broke for Democrats by a margin of 63 to 35. This makes sense: Every conservative denunciation of “wokeness” is, at bottom, a proclamation that Republicans shall not allow the youngest Americans to live the lives they want; their massive effort to suppress the vote is, in the end, just a plan to deny the youngest Americans their right to shape the nation they’re inheriting just as they’re becoming regular voters.

Still, I think a lot could have gone wrong with the way Democrats messaged around a defense of democracy. When Biden trotted out “ultra MAGA” some months ago, I worried he was more likely to energize the opposition than rally his own troops. But more recently, I heard one of Pennsylvania Governor-elect Josh Shapiro’s final campaign speeches, and I realized just how much power this closing argument could marshal.

I’m not letting Doug Mastriano take away your vote.… That is not how things work in this commonwealth or in this country. That’s not how our democracy works, and that’s not what freedom is all about.

This guy loves to talk a good game about “freedom” all the time. Right? We’ve heard that. Let me tell you something: It’s not freedom to tell women what they’re allowed to do with their bodies. Right? That’s not freedom. It’s not freedom to tell our schoolchildren what books they’re allowed to read. That’s not freedom. It’s not freedom to tell workers they can work a 40-hour workweek but they can’t be a member of a union. That’s not freedom. And it sure as hell isn’t freedom to say, you can go vote, but he’s gonna pick the winner. That’s not freedom. That’s not how we do things here in Pennsylvania.

This is the way to talk about democracy: not as something that only started mattering because Donald Trump came along to piss on it but as the great provider of the gifts of the good life—prosperity, stability, and dignity. Democracy is also something that has enemies, who should be cheerfully and confidently named and shamed.

Obviously the fight is far from over; lots of illiberal Republicans won this week. And now that democracy is “off the ballot,” Democrats need to help everyone who cast a vote to preserve democracy find new and creative ways to tend to it in all the days that come between elections. But we can put any skepticism about the “message” to bed. The fight for democracy is a good fight, and it’s good that the right people found a way, while facing long odds, to draw a line in the sand and punch the bullies in the mouth. More of this, please!

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

Will Elon Musk Ruin Twitter? That’s the Wrong Question.

The Tesla mogul has taken up ownership of a company that may not have much of a future with or without him.

Twitter account of Elon Musk/Getty Images
Elon Musk visits Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters.

Tesla founder and professional online griefer Elon Musk paid a visit Wednesday to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, carrying a sink to execute a visual pun I won’t condescend to explain here. This was the beginning of a significant week in the life of Musk and the company. The headline-making deal that has left the venerable social media firm in his hands has, after fits and starts, come to fruition. Employees were invited to say hello to Musk as he swanned about the building—a dicey proposition given that Musk had announced that he’ll be shedding three-quarters of the firm’s workers as one of his opening moves.

As Musk neared the completion of a transaction that he may end up regretting, there was a lot of “last week of Twitter” talk circulating. The fears are not entirely unfounded: If Musk carries out his planned purge, people more deeply invested in knowing how Twitter works predict that the move will likely have a “major impact” on the company’s “ability to control harmful content and prevent data security crises.” Of course, for all anyone knows, Musk won’t gut the workforce in this fashion—in fact, while he immediately made a series of splashy firings, he already appears to be walking back this threat. This is typical Musk: His favorite commodity to manufacture, after all, is bravado, which is probably why he wants to be the “chief twit” at the internet’s biggest hot-take mill. It’s very possible to overstate Musk’s malevolence. But as I listen to the doomsaying, I’m reminded that it’s equally possible to overstate Twitter’s importance.

What does it actually mean for Twitter to “end”? Is it going to be like when Friendster ended? Is it going to be like when we all stopped using manual typewriters? If and when Twitter meets its final demise, it stands to reason that we’ll not easily replace it. As Garbage Day’s Ryan Broderick notes, there aren’t “any platforms well-established enough to collect Twitter refugees all at once,” and there’s no guarantee that one will. Twitter has, over time, accreted a bunch of different functions that make sense in its skin but aren’t necessarily worth another company replicating. “Historically,” Broderick argues, “the exact features of a dead platform never really come back.”

But it’s one thing to feel wistful about the platform that allowed us all to gasp together when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock in the face; another thing entirely to feel anxious about the possibility that this one may fall into crapulence. I think that most of these fears are based on a misapprehension that Twitter is some kind of manifestation of “the public square”—something that Musk himself still seems to believe as well (though his vision for this public square is less content moderation and more advertising, two ideas he does not understand are in tension with each other).

Here’s the good news, however: Twitter isn’t a “public square.” I don’t mean to downplay the way this platform can and sometimes does have uplifting effects on people’s lives and careers. But you can’t have a public square without the public, and the public has proven itself to be very resistant to Twitter’s charms. A study by Pew Research found that fewer than one-quarter of U.S. adults use Twitter at all. Of this sliver of the population, an even tinier cohort is responsible for the vast majority of tweets: “The top 25% of users by tweet volume produce 97% of all tweets, while the bottom 75% of users produce just 3%.”  

As it turns out, Twitter really is just a weird bubble of self-selecting outlier freaks; we’re disproportionately elite but largely unfollowed by the masses. We’re loud and we’re persistent and we’re representative of nothing in particular. And if what we were doing on Twitter was some kind of threat to the powers that be, well, there would probably already be a well-funded campaign to stop us from tweeting, the way there is a well-funded campaign to strip Democrats of their voting rights.

Besides, there’s another way of thinking about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. It may be that the very reason it’s happening is precisely because Twitter is already well on its way to becoming a distressed asset without Musk’s influence and thus ripe for the plucking. According to the firm’s own research, Twitter is struggling to maintain the engagement of its most active users, and an overall shift in user interest—from news, sports, and entertainment to cryptocurrency and “not safe for work” content—stands to “make the platform less attractive to advertisers.” 

The picture being painted is of a site struggling to stay relevant and influential, to which Musk is going to tether himself like a subprime mortgage in a doomed effort to refurbish a property that can’t be saved. Even in this regard, we should consider whether more tidal forces are at work. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, is also having epochal problems as its “metaverse” play founders and the company (and its founder) shed market value. Maybe what’s happening right now is simple evolution: Social media’s neolithic age is simply giving way to the next era, and the old dinosaurs are sinking in tar.

At any rate, if you’re in need of an actual public square, there’s always the real thing: public and civic life, political organizing, and citizenship. And more and more, we need more reasonable and sane people in that space. We need more people out in the world to outnumber antisemitic thugs who preach hate on highway overpasses and to show up in greater numbers in rooms where monstrous idiots are bullying children to tears because of their insane belief that the mural they painted is “satanic.” Liberals need to be working, in numbers, at polling places on this Election Day and the next. We can all live with Twitter rotting out from the inside, but we can’t allow the same thing to happen to democracy. If these are the last days of Twitter, let’s embrace the fact that we’ll all have more time to do the things that really matter.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The January 6 Committee Can’t Win an Election

The congressional investigation into the Capitol Riot accomplished much, but it was never a good vehicle to deliver the midterms to the Democrats.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With the January 6 committee’s work having concluded on the cliff-hanger of former President Trump getting subpoenaed, the postmortems have been rolling in—and some of them are primarily concerned with the impact of the group’s work on the upcoming midterm elections. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz fretted that while the committee provided “a valuable reminder of what is at stake in November,” it wasn’t immediately clear how that would translate into voters acting on the January 6 revelations, if they acted at all.

As if to reply, his Post colleague Aaron Blake laid out some hard truths: Democrats had not made January 6 “an overarching focus of their campaign messaging,” and while the committee’s work was well publicized, recent polling suggested that “Democrats haven’t really driven the argument home.” Perhaps most dispiriting, there’s evidence that the largely Democratic committee didn’t even sway its own supporters: “If you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that isn’t the full story: It’s also the case that many Democratic voters haven’t been convinced that the problem goes beyond Trump.”

That the January 6 committee hasn’t had much of an effect on the way midterm voters think about Republican threats to democracy isn’t a new insight. At the beginning of August, a Monmouth University survey found that the hearings’ impact on public opinion was negligible at best. Flash forward to today, and you’ll find that January 6 remains a low priority for voters: The most recent Harvard/Harris poll found that only 7 percent of voters thought of January 6 as their most pressing issue.

But rather than indict the committee for these failings, it’s worth considering whether the point of its work was to confer some sort of partisan electoral advantage to Democrats. Throughout its proceedings, it has focused on institutional, not electoral, interests. If anything, it really seems that the committee mightily endeavored to avoid cheapening its work by mixing it up with histrionic election-year politics. Perhaps the responsibility for articulating that “the problem goes beyond Trump”—that it, in fact, connected to everything the GOP is currently about—was never in its purview. Rather, that responsibility belonged to the Democratic Party itself.

President Biden has recently shown that it’s eminently possible to use campaign rhetoric to connect the events of January 6 to the midterm elections. He rather clearly and provocatively articulated this message in a fiery oration last month in Philadelphia, in which he cited the right’s turn toward authoritarianism and the GOP’s well-funded open war against the right to vote as threats to democracy.

The speech had one flaw, however: Biden’s sudden urgency about these threats is a stark contrast with his previously casual assessment of the idea that democracy was under attack. Many of his specific warnings of late, from the GOP’s turn toward “semi-fascism” to the fact that the party was “working right now … in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself,” were matters that he and his fellow Democrats largely failed to either address legislatively or warn about earlier. In fact, the Biden White House had previously dismissed worries about voting rights as a boutique concern, telling The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas, “Every constituency has their issue.… If you ask immigration folks, they’ll tell you their issue is a life-or-death issue too.”

Democrats largely followed Biden’s lead, treating voting rights as an issue that Republicans could be convinced to support. And so multiple voting rights bills met a predictable demise in the Senate, where too many Democrats believed that preserving the upper chamber’s filibuster tradition was more important than ensuring their own constituents would continue to be able to cast a vote freely.

Even with polls indicating that inflation and jobs are top of voters’ minds, there’s a good argument for foregrounding the threat of Republican illiberalism in the political conversation: The GOP’s anti-democratic tilt ties right back to matters of the economy. For the avowed economic platform of the GOP is every bit as extreme as an insurrection. The Republicans plan to use debt-limit brinkmanship to impose painful austerity upon the American people. They not only lack a plan of their own to alleviate inflationary pressures, but intend to lay further siege to ordinary Americans by forcing Biden to choose between gutting earned-benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare and destroying the economy by defaulting on the government’s debt.

In a perfect world, perhaps the January 6 committee might have penetrated the consciousness of voters to the extent that it shifted voter opinion. Alas, it didn’t, because it was never within its purview to paint this broader picture. But the fact that so many observers bemoan this failure suggests that the vacuum the January 6 hearing failed to fill should have been filled by others. The committee’s work exceeded expectations, but it turns out that it was never a great substitute for just doing politics.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The Industry Devouring the American Dream

Private equity’s tentacles reach nearly every aspect of our lives, and it’s making everything worse.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Do newspaper endorsements matter? It’s a question that’s been kicked around a lot in recent years. Some editors laud the tradition; others think it’s time for them to end. I’ve always felt that these sledgehammerings from on high, purporting to help voters pick and choose, are no substitute for the woven tapestry of journalism that creates a well-informed public. But that doesn’t mean that I’m cheering the news that one major publisher has announced that it is dispensing with them altogether. And that’s because this particular decision is being handed down by a firm called Alden Global Capital, best known for being at the vanguard of a recent trend: private equity devouring the world.

The New York Timesreport on the matter offers only Alden’s point of view, which sounds innocuous enough at first blush. In a forthcoming editorial set to run in Alden’s publications, the firm says its decision to spike endorsements was done in the spirit of “advanc[ing] a healthy and productive discourse” and reducing “acrimony.” The “common ground,” it writes, “has become a no-man’s land between the clashing forces of the culture wars.”

But as The Nation’s Washington correspondent (and TNR’s former editor) Chris Lehmann notes at length, red flags abound. “The ‘no man’s land’ rhetoric here is especially risible,” he writes, “given that Alden has laid siege to local news markets on its relentless binge of media acquisition.” Indeed, Alden isn’t so much known for advancing the discourse as it is for gutting it; the “no-man’s land” it speaks of has become more of a “no-newspapers land” under its watch, as it lays off employees and closes newsrooms across the country, leaving the aforementioned tapestry of journalism in tatters. But this is just the damage that one private equity firm is doing to one industry.

The tale the private equity industry tells about itself is a virtuous one: They’re savvy investors rescuing ailing firms and making them profitable. Naturally, popular culture has provided an alternative story: that of leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers. But as Mother Jones’s Hannah Levintova explained, yesteryear’s mythmaking doesn’t really capture how much the industry has evolved. It’s no longer the case that private equity firms mainly hunt down dying businesses to pluck profit like carrion from their bones. Now, she writes, “the bulk of the work done by modern-day private equity firms is not to finish off sick companies, but rather to stalk and gut the healthy ones.”

Consequently, there is almost no aspect of American life that hasn’t been financialized; there is always fresh meat at the private equity smorgasbord. As The Financial Times reported in June 2021, the private equity industry’s assets amounted to more than $3 trillion. And its acquisitions run the gamut: As Levintova notes, the industry acquired numerous for-profit colleges, “enveloped the health care sector,” and gobbled up nursing homes, with the end result being lower graduation rates, increased student debt, higher medical costs, and a rise in the mortality of nursing home patients. Elsewhere, we learn that these firms have devoured trailer parks, neighborhood grocers, and big retail chains. (One thing private equity consistently fails to do is make things better. As TNR contributor Jon Skolnik recently noted, “In the retail sector alone, the industry is estimated to have killed at least 1.3 million jobs since 2009.”)

Beyond the staggering array of assets that private equity firms are absorbing, there is also the broad impact of their rapaciousness to consider. The industry bears some responsibility for climate change and surprise medical bills. It even somehow got its mitts on billions of dollars’ worth of forgivable bailout loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, even though the industry was excluded from those proceeds. Private equity was such a bedevilment to Taylor Swift that it’s surprising she’s not yet penned an “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)”–style ballad about her experiences.

So private equity is hoovering up every piece of the American dream it can. And in recent years, it’s been targeting one of the most essential parts of the lives we all hope to build for ourselves: where we live. As ProPublica reported in February, private equity–backed companies have “stormed into the multifamily apartment market, snapping up rentals by the thousands and becoming major landlords in American cities,” raising rents and chewing up tenants in their profit-squeezing schemes. And Marketwatch reported in July that the industry has upped its stake in the available stock of single-family homes, competing against ordinary home buyers in a mad dash to snatch up available housing stock and shift it onto the rental market.

That ordinary American families now have to outbid Jeff Bezos for their dream home is a grim and dystopian fact of life. Fortunately, there is some pushback: U.S. Representative Adam Smith, who represents Washington state’s 9th district, has introduced the Saving Homes From Acquisition by Private Equity Act, which, if enacted, would “create a significant federal real estate transfer tax on institutional investors and private equity firms who purchase single-family homes on the open market,” raising revenue that states can then use to build or maintain affordable housing and “slow the consolidation of single-family home ownership among the investor class.”

Democrats should climb aboard this bandwagon; defending ordinary Americans from clear and obvious plutocratic predators is what the Good Life agenda is all about. But the party needs to get to it quickly: Before long, there might not be enough newspapers left to endorse the defenders of the American dream.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The United States of Plutocracy

As if dodgy oligarchs and shifty tax cheats didn’t have enough help hiding their ill-gotten gains, your state government may have stepped up to join the con.

Graphica Artis/Getty Images

What do you think of when you think of tax havens? For many, the idea evokes Swiss banks or Caribbean islands—far-flung locales where shell companies stack high and shady enablers in fine suits ooze around every street corner. The truth, however, is that havens for illicit and ill-gotten boodle aren’t nearly as exotic as the Robert Ludlum novel in your mind. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from recent disclosures—such as the Pandora Papers—on the lengths that the rich and powerful will go to stash their wealth, it’s that the most innovative and disruptive tax havens in the world are the ones right next door.

The U.S. is growing in stature as one of the premier locations for oligarchs of all stripes to safely stash their cash. As TNR contributor Casey Michel has noted, the top grifters in the kleptocracy extended universe aren’t just parking their loot in popular Western capitals, they’re buying up real estate in Cleveland—where Ukrainian kleptocrat Ihor Kolomoisky was, at one point, “the largest commercial real estate holder” in the city. There’s a sizable amount of corrupt money flowing through America’s think tanks as well. And the Pandora Papers revealed that there is a small army of stateside lawyers ready to come to the aid of those who need to keep their filthy lucre hidden.

But it’s underappreciated how one of the biggest enablers of this whole corrupt regime might be your state government. According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, or IPS, a growing number of states have become havens for illicit wealth due to the systematic degradation of regulations governing trusts. These instruments, which are probably best known for their utility in allowing affluent parents to sock away money for their children, are being used more and more by bad actors who want to obscure their fortunes or simply avoid paying taxes on them.

As Tim Noah wrote a year ago, the release of the Pandora Papers shone a light on the state that also gets top billing for the IPS: South Dakota, which pioneered the undoing of trusts by repealing what’s known as the “rule against perpetuities,” the backbone regulation that limits the amount of time money can be held in trust. The IPS’s new study reveals the extent to which South Dakota has touched off a race to the bottom among states who want to deregulate the industry further: More than half of U.S. states have repealed the rule against perpetuities.

But that’s just a start—13 states have gone further to enable these stateside tax havens. The upshot is that tax dodgers and kleptocrats suddenly have a lot of options: They can now effectively stash their wealth in perpetuity if they want. Many states even permit the person who establishes the trust to be the beneficiary of that trust as well—an arrangement that practically legalizes tax dodging.

And as the IPS’s Kalena Thomhave and Chuck Collins note at length, the deterioration of the laws governing trusts have many ill effects on ordinary people, from the way “investments by anonymous trusts in real estate” help to “push up the cost of housing for locals” to the democracy-debasing effect of permitting foreign oligarchs and like-minded thieves to stash their plunder here in the U.S.

This corrupted regulatory state impacts our lives in numerous ways. As Thomhave and Collins report, ordinary people don’t derive any material benefit from their states transforming themselves into safe-deposit boxes for oligarchs. They also note that there “is a significant correlation between regressive state taxation systems, which hurt the poorest residents, and trust-subservient state laws.” But the worst effect by far is the way this misrule further entrenches inequality of all stripes:

The wealthy deploy their power to further shape the rules, news, and culture of society, including trust law. They block popular reforms by capturing the political system and ensuring dysfunctional gridlock. This leads to further consolidation of wealth dynasties, impervious to taxation and accountability. It also leads to more social breakdown and polarization as our collective capacity to solve big problems—like responding to a pandemic or ecological disruption—is rendered inoperative.

At The New Republic, we’ve found ourselves asking more and more: Are states OK? A recent book by Jacob M. Grumbach, Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics, argues that the states have become “the wrecking ball” of democracy, subverting the desires of their citizens and throwing roadblocks in the way of their right to seek redress with their vote. Now this IPS report shows just how many states are signing up to be the haven of illicit money and harbor the ultrawealthy from paying their taxes. Should state governments serve plutocratic elites or their own citizens? A growing number are making the wrong choice.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.