Newsletter: What happened to Ta-Nehisi Coates?

Credit: Eduardo Montes-Bradley.

This is an essay from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

As far as I can tell, Ta-Nehisi Coates has disappeared from the world of journalism. He deleted his Twitter account in 2017 and resigned from The Atlantic in the summer of 2018. He is still writing — he’s reportedly working on film, television, and comic book projects and he has a forthcoming novel — but for the moment he has no public perch from which he routinely offers essays and reportage on America politics and identity as he used to.

Some people see this as the loss as one of the country’s greatest commentators. But I think it might be a good thing that he’s stepped away.

This isn’t to say that I don’t miss Coates’ writing. I certainly wish I could still watch him think out loud. I feel the absence of his epic lyricism and sanguinary preoccupations, influenced by his consumption of Civil War history, hip hop, Shakespeare, and comic books. I was very fond of his blog at The Atlantic, which was uniquely dialogic in nature. Coates engaged in careful conversation with books he was reading, songs he was listening to, the thinkers he disagreed with or found interesting, and the huge set of commenters on his blog. Technically all public intellectuals are meant to be doing this, but in reality very few do it in a manner that’s so fruitful for the reader. Unlike most journalists and essayists, Coates felt no shame admitting agnosticism or non-expertise or even total ignorance on a variety of subjects. Whereas most of his counterparts either cover up or distract from being out of their intellectual comfort zones, he saw those situations as learning opportunities, and reveled in embracing the mindset of the student, in channeling “the magic of childhood.” How many people whose job requires a reputation of intelligence film themselves stumbling confusedly through a foreign language they had just begun learning? (I can assure you nobody will see any such thing from me as I study and butcher the language of Spanish these days.) And in the instances when he had total clarity regarding an idea or an event, he was masterful at interweaving lived experience with the abstract.

I diverged from Coates on many issues. I found his work to often elide human agency and to imbue the horrors of American racism with a kind of mystical and transcendent quality. Despite grounding his analyses in historical context and grappling with the corporeal aspect of white supremacy, I found his writing to engage inadequately with the workings of political economy. I will have to revisit Between the World and Me, but in my initial reading — which I found far less compelling than his blog posts and shorter essays — I found no persuasive theory of change. Yet because Coates is such a pleasure to read and so deliberate with his chisel, even the writing I disagreed with was enjoyable, and a surefire way to sharpen my own thinking.

I miss his blogging, but it might be a good thing that he’s taken a break from the conventional journalistic world. Ta-Nehisi Coates had become larger than life. His fans had formed a religion around him and his work. Many of his critics reserved special stores of venom for him that were overly personal. I came to believe that both those who revered him and loathed him were suffering from the same affliction: they were trying to extract too much from one man.

The kind of critical acclaim Coates had received before he left The Atlantic was very strange. The fervor of a lot of Coates fans — most prominently, white liberals — suggested that his writing achieved something superhuman, something akin to levitating or seeing the future. His fans displayed unbelievable theatrics online in response to his essays and seemed to find something either otherworldly or life-sustaining about them (the New York Times’ A.O. Scott deemed his writing “essential, like water or air”). In a leaked recording, the editor of The Atlantic told his staff that he would “die for [Coates].” When Coates is described by his admirers, his name is invariably surrounded by superlatives and he is constantly deemed the “best” or “greatest” essayist/writer/intellectual alive or even of all time. He is compared relentlessly to James Baldwin, who is often hailed today as a prophetic figure, even though Coates is very young and very alive, at the age of 43. As the Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada put it, Coates had been ordained“America’s conscience on race.”

I found all this troubling. Not because I think Coates in particular doesn’t “deserve” it — I find him to be a marvelous stylist and an original thinker — but because I don’t think anyone should be described this way. Just as I wouldn’t be able to declare something the “best” book or meal or film or jacket or tree in America, I can’t bring myself to make that claim about any kind of creator. What an incredible rejection of the diversity of life! What a dizzying obliteration of the countless facets and moods of the human mind! It’s not just that evaluating something like writing is a subjective exercise, it’s also that writers have so many different responsibilities and powers, and it is inherently impossible to excel at too many of them at the same time. The polemicist, the pedant, the policy wonk, the futurist, the historian, the social scientist, the epistemologist, the moralist, the avant-garde poet, the physicist: they all matter. As a social/intellectual exercise we could establish specific criteria and vote on who is best at what in particular in a given moment and contemplate the results with a bit of irony, but that’s not what’s happening with worship of Coates.

The key question is what fuels the energy of those who obsess over him. And I think a significant part of it stems from their perception of themselves more than of Coates.

In educated white liberal circles, reading Coates and, more importantly, sharing his texts and talking about Coates, is the premier badge of commitment to antiracism. As Lozada puts it, “‘Did you read the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates piece?’ is shorthand for ‘Have you absorbed and shared the latest and best and correct thinking on racism, white privilege, institutional violence and structural inequality?’” Coates is conspicuous consumption for identitarian liberals, a kind of currency that shows investment in the fight against racial oppression. (It’s worth nothing that there is also something subtly paternalistic about it from some white readers who haven’t read much literature by non-white writers — a kind of amazement at prowess they apparently hadn’t encountered up to that point.)

At Book Riot in 2017, one Coates fan wrote that she felt wounded when she heard him explain in a podcast that his imagined audience was always African-American and that he was frustrated that Between the World and Me was being depicted on shows like SNL as the book of choice for white liberals living in the anti-Trump bubble. She wrote that “a good portion of the ‘woke’ white world lost it’s ever-lovin’ mind” at Coates’ comments:

I wont lie, my initial instinct was to feel hurt. I was concerned that my motives had been misconstrued. I fully admit to living in “the bubble.” It’s part and parcel of being raised white in this country. I want people to know I’m not a racist, that I absolutely abhor Donald Trump’s message of hate and fear… so I want to make sure you know I’m trying. I’m reading the right books. I’m following the right social justice warriors on Twitter. I’m having the hard conversations.

Does this mean that every white liberal who loves Coates is reading him for the optics? Of course not. But I think the quote above captures a very real phenomenon: The consumption of Coates is not just about the text itself but about politico-cultural socialization and signaling.

Much of the radical left’s response to this was to say that Coates was to blame for the way white liberals fetishized him. The argument offered by various leftist critics, most notably Cornel West, was that Coates’ analysis allowed liberals to feel personally exonerated by reading him without having to actually change anything about themselves or society. That the ferocity of hid prose had the aura of radicalism, allowing people to feel rebellious while reading him, while ultimately accommodating the neoliberal status quo. And they homed in on how his writing either omitted or negated the possibility of radically restructuring society through collective action as a way to combat white supremacy.

As I alluded to earlier, I myself have always had major points of disagreement with Coates’ worldview that emanate from a leftist perspective. But I was also taken aback by the intensity and vulgarity of some of the criticism of him.

I think some people on the left fail to appreciate that Coates really does awaken different things in different kinds of people, and there is real radical potential for liberals who read him. UCLA historian Robin Kelley has written convincingly about how Coates’ iconic pessimism doesn’t necessarily thrust all of his readers into a state of resignation:

[E]ven if Coates says he has very little hope, many read him and see for the first time the deeply entrenched and hidden processes that reproduce inequality within the United States. And they’re not all white! I’ve had literally hundreds of students—black, white, Latinx, Asian American—read Coates’s work on reparations or Between the World and Me (which was core reading for most first-years across our campus) and come running to my courses, questioning their liberalism, seeking out more radical critiques of racial capitalism, some even jumping headlong into groups such as Refuse Fascism [A radical leftist organization with which Cornel West is associated]

I think some leftists might actually overvalue the importance of spelling out a blueprint for change or laying out what the good society should look like. Not everything has to be a liberatory text. Sometimes tales of darkness work as well.

The other major concern I had was that it seemed many leftists were effectively punishing Coates for something he could not control. Even if it’s true that a large swath of white liberals are seduced by Coates because they see his writing as offering them redemption without work, I don’t think it’s his fault that this set has tried to turn him into the all-knowing sage whom everyone should turn to.

It’s crucial to remember that canonizing is always a power play. When people say that a specific creator or work is to be considered special and exemplary, that person is making a claim to be an arbiter of our attention. And, look, it shouldn’t be surprising who feels entitled to engage in that enterprise of agenda-setting. In 2013, Jordan Michael Smith, a white generalist writer with no particular expertise in race relations, wrote in the Observer when profiling Coates: “Mr. Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.”

I find that pretty remarkable for a lot of reasons, but I’ll put it this way: I could never fathom writing this sentence: “X person is the single best writer on the subject of gender in the United States.” Coates apparently felt similarly. He later wrote that the profile made him “retch.” And I suspect the many such profiles that came after made him feel uncomfortable as well.

Despite Coates’ disinterest in being treated this way, it became a kind of liability for him.

In his book, We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates grappled with criticism that fixated on his huge fawning white audience:

A question — from other black writers and readers and a voice inside me now began to hover over my work — Why do white people like what I write? The question would eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did. Either way, there was a lesson in this: God might not save me, but neither would defiance. How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?

I don’t have any special insight into why Coates left The Atlantic and Twitter, but from what I’ve read in a handful of interviews it seems that these questions and the culture wars surrounding them played a significant role in his departure. “When I used to write, it was like I felt like I had more freedom to write as I felt. I didn’t think I was representing anything more than my own feelings and thoughts,” he told the Washington Post around the time that the left The Atlantic.

I admire Coates’ impulse to retreat from the curse of being treated as a symbol and a signaling mechanism instead of a writer. Many journalists would kill to wield the kind of power that he garnered during his decade at The Atlantic, and would knowingly take advantage of mass adulation, even if they knew it was problematic. But he’s stepped away from it, at least for now, because it was interfering with his abilities and focus as an intellectual. He put the craft first.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing in the past tense during this essay (probably a bit inconsistently), but of course Coates is still working on a ton of major works that will likely continue to shape American life, and he may return to a conventional journalistic position at any point in the future. I hope that the change of pace is useful for him, and helps him stay centered and productive, although I have to say if he makes a return I’m not optimistic that the reception to him will be much different. There’s something about people wanting heroes that I’m not sure I’ll ever quite understand. In the meantime, it would be nice to see the huge array of talented people of color who write about race and politics in country get more attention as they debate our past and our future.

You can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco

On January 23rd, Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislative branch, declared himself president of Venezuela. Within minutes, the US and several Latin American countries recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president and simultaneously rejected the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s sitting president who had been sworn into office for his second term earlier in the month. Since then, tensions have escalated as the US has imposed harsh new sanctions on Caracas and has boasted that military intervention is on the table.

As with all news related to Venezuela in the West, there’s a ton of glib analysis out there tainted by a reflex to treat the country as a battleground for narratives on socialism or foreign intervention, and there’s a scarcity of specific engagement with the Venezuelan experience. To cut through the noise last week I called up Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian of Latin America at NYU, to get his perspective on what’s driving this extraordinary turn of events, how the US left should be positioning itself on the issue, and why he feels overwhelmed by pessimism about his home country.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

ZA: How does someone who hasn’t been a presidential candidate simply declare himself president?

Alejandro Velasco: That has to do with a particular reading of the Venezuelan constitution that says when there’s a vacuum in the executive power, then it falls upon the president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative branch, to assume those duties.

The legitimacy at the international level is being claimed upon by appealing to Article 233 of the constitution. They claim, not without reason, that the elections that brought Maduro last year into office were highly irregular, were fraudulent, and so therefore he is not a legitimate president as of January 10th, when he swore himself into a new term of office.

It’s a legal argument that Guaidó’s banking on to assert legitimacy. The problem is that same Article 233 of the constitution also says new elections need to be held within 30 days. Even though Guaidó has said the plan is to hold elections, it’s been very vague. In fact it’s the third of 3 plans that he’s announced. (The first one is seizing the usurpation, the second one is establishing an interim governments.) The argument makes sense insofar as you won’t be able to call new elections with the existing institutional apparatus, which is controlled by chavistas. But the second you say that then you get into all sorts of legal confusion as to why are you calling upon this article in order to assert the legitimacy of rule.

Which is why it’s important to understand that what’s happening in Venezuela isn’t actually a matter of legality, it’s a matter of who can claim legitimacy of rule.

Continue reading “Newsletter: Venezuela Q&A with Alejandro Velasco”

Jim Acosta revisited

In last week’s newsletter I found myself in the unusual position of arguing that a reporter should be less adversarial toward Trump.

The crux of my argument was not that Jim Acosta’s violations of White House decorum were unseemly, but that that they were ineffective. I argued that his stunts would hand a victory to Trump’s agenda to paint the media as treating him unfairly without obtaining anything meaningful in return.

Upon reflection, fueled in part by some pushback online, I suppose I don’t care that much about how Acosta chooses to comport himself.

It could be argued that even if Acosta abided by the rules, Trumpland would still be convinced that CNN is fake news, and so the costs of his activism is marginal. And then there’s also a case to be made that while Acosta is not going to win a concession from the administration, he could, theoretically, inspire other White House reporters to be fiercer. That’s a good cause — the White House Correspondents’ Association is such a spineless institution that it has decided this year to break from its tradition of inviting a comedian to its annual dinner. Let that sink in: In the Trump era, the organization has chosen to try to avoid controversy and make the president feel less worried about being roasted.

So let me get to the big unspoken impulse that drove my initial post: I’m angry about inconsistency.

I’m angry that Acosta’s behavior in all likelihood would never have happened had Ted Cruz won the presidency and pursued an extremely similar policy agenda and quested to sate the toxic impulses of the same reactionary constituents because he knows how to do it with a veneer of civility. And I’m angry because White House reporters like Acosta have declined to act this way in the past as presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have run circles around credulous, flat-footed reporters.

A lot of liberals like to cry out that this Trump’s lying is “not business as usual” or that “this is not normal.” This kind of rhetoric often obscures continuity. Yes, Trump has led us to new frontiers in untruth, but let’s be clear: lying is business as usual for politicians. Yes, Trump’s white nationalism has broken some new ground, but the Southern Strategy has prevailed for decades.

In recent years before Trump took office journalists have failed to aggressively push back against falsehoods used to justify atrocities like the Iraq War, gutting protections for the poor, protecting bankers from prosecution, preventing universal healthcare and inaction on climate change. Where were the Acostas then? The flagrancy of a Trump lie deserves an adversarial press; the sophistication of a Bush or Obama or Paul Ryan lie deserves one just as much.

So my more considered response to Acosta’s behavior is: either get in the face of every lying politician you see — even the ones who veil their deception and their misdeeds with great skill — or do what you usually do.

A lot of journalists seem to be taking the wrong lesson from the Trump era. As I argued in an essay about Ben Smith’s widely lauded piece on the supposed decline of insider journalism, the Trump era shouldn’t be making journalists nostalgic for coziness between the press and the political class in older times — it should be making them realize that the old model was bad.

Newsletter: What’s Jim Acosta doing?

Credit: Gage Skidmore

This is the opening comment from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Jim Acosta is on a crusade, but it’s unclear what it’s about.

The vaguely George Clooney-esque White House reporter for CNN has been causing a huge ruckus in Washington with his clashes with the Trump administration. After refusing to give up his microphone during a Trump press conference in which he badgered the president, Acosta’s permanent press credentials were revoked — and now he and CNN are suing the White House.

The White House’s argument for revoking his credentials was nonsense. It claimed that Acosta lost his pass for “placing his hands” on the intern who tried to grab his mic, and to make the case it released a video doctored by an unhinged British conspiracy theorist. Acosta did lightly touch the intern, but it wasn’t any kind of assault, as the White House has implied. Fortunately CNN, which is suing both on First and Fifth amendment (due process) grounds, has a strong legal case for getting Acosta’s credentials back.

It should go without saying that if Trump can’t stand Acosta, he’d be better off calling on him less frequently instead of trying to kick him out of the White House press corps based on a lie. But, assuming Acosta gets his credentials back, he should really take this moment to reflect on what he’s been doing lately and if he wants to keep doing it. Because I don’t get it.

For years, Acosta has has locked horns with Trump and his press secretaries over their mendacity and their attacks on the press. But Acosta doesn’t just ask his questions. He explicitly frames them as a “challenge.” He speaks theatrically about the spirit of American democracy. He talks over and cuts off his interlocutors. He refuses to ask one question, taking away time from other reporters with follow-ups that yield no meaningful answers. He demands that the administration take back its criticism of the press. Once, in a move that made him resemble a member of Code Pink more than a reporter, he shouted at the president from the back of the crowdat a tax anniversary event, causing audience members to shush him! In short, Acosta has sought to be a nuisance.

I struggle to understand his endgame here. Is he hoping that his stunts will get the administration to finally acknowledge that it lies? To apologize for lying? To even stop lying? Because nobody with a shred common sense would think that’s possible. Deception is a key political strategy of the Trump administration, and it’s carried out with pride, not regret.

Of course Acosta and all reporters should use questions and follow-up questions to point out falsehoods and place pressure on the Trump administration in a bid for accountability. But Acosta is trying to go one step further than that, seemingly believing that if he vexes the administration enough they might break down and make a concession.

That tactic is not only failing — it is clearly backfiring. It neatly plays into Trump’s narrative that the media harbors a grudge against him and is uninterested in treating him fairly. Trump has license to say that CNN reporters never spoke to Obama the way they speak to him. And the optics are terrible. If I think Acosta looks kind of annoying during press briefings, then there’s no doubt that Trump’s supporters, who are already primed to believe anything the president says, will see his antics as evidence of unforgivable anti-Trump bias in the press. There’s a reason that Trump press staffers give each other high fives after they walk away from the podium after sparring with Acosta.

I share Acosta’s rage. But if he’s decided that Trump’s propaganda operation deserves more than questioning he’s better off pursuing that goal outside of the White House press corps. He’s chosen to work in a sector of media that relies on politesse and deference to acquire information, and he’s running into the limits of that. I wouldn’t want to deal with that either, which is why I wouldn’t want to work as a White House correspondent. Acosta should take on a position that involves more overt analysis and opinion, or investigative work, or leave the media and become an activist. Right now he he’s hurting his own cause, and the story has moved away from Trump’s falsehoods and toward the melodrama of Trump vs CNN.

And maybe that’s the point. A Politico Magazine article reports that the higher-ups at CNN seem to love the skirmishes, which is why Acosta has gotten the green light to keep doing it. “There is also a view inside the network’s newsroom that Acosta has been given the latitude, perhaps even the implicit assignment, to turn the briefing room into a personal editorial page because it is good television and reaffirms CNN’s integral role in the ongoing drama,” the article says. That’s shocking, but not surprising, for an outlet that confessed to giving Trump massively disproportionate airtime in the run-up to the 2016 election because it was so watchable.

In this reading, CNN is in some ways of the same ilk as Trump: prioritizing ratings over pursuit of truth.

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

Newsletter: How’d the Dems do?

Credit: Austin Schmid

This is the opening comment from my weekly newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

What did we learn from the midterms?

There’s a big debate going on about the true scope and meaning of Tuesday’s elections. Specifically, over whether the Democrats did well as they “should have” given Trump’s historically abysmal ratings, and what it says about whether the Democratic Party needs to tack to the left or stay closer to the center for 2020.

In a sentence I’d summarize the results like this: the Democratic Party, which is growing more diverse and moving to the left, did fairly well, but the results offer no clear prescription for the future.

The Democrats did best in the House. They picked up more seats than in any other midterm election since 1974. In that case, the surge was driven by Richard Nixon’s resignation just three months prior. In this case, exit polling data suggests it’s Trump and the GOP’s attacks on healthcare that drove well-educated suburbanites to flip from red to blue. The results were especially striking given the health of the economy and a very low unemployment rate.

Thanks to the Democrats, a record number of women will be serving in Congress. Two will be the first Native American women elected. Another two will be the first Muslim women elected to Congress. One of them arrived in the US as a refugee. A self-avowed democratic socialist Latina who talks of creating a new kind of progressive voting bloc in the House is primed to become a political superstar. There are lively things going on in the House Democratic caucus.

In the Senate, the Democrats did … okay. Given how tough the map was for them — they were defending three times as many seats as Republicans — things didn’t go terribly. But there were hopes that Democrats — especially Beto O’Rourke — would outperform their polls based on the Trump effect, and that didn’t happen. Instead, Republicans have maintained their majority, and depending on how a few more races conclude, will likely extend their majority. Perhaps most strikingly, three incumbent Democratic senators lost on Tuesday, marking the first time an opposition party incumbent senator has lost an election since 2002.

The margin of Republicans’ victory in the Senate doesn’t necessarily matter much for the next two years, given the Democrats’ control of the House, but it could matter a hell of a lot for 2020. Vox’s Dylan Matthews estimates that given how tricky the 2020 map is Democrats could very well remain a minority in the Senate until 2022.

The Dems picked up seven governorships — the best pickup either party has pulled off since 1994. That matters a lot for Democratic policy in those states and congressional redistricting. But it’s worth noting that they lost in the presidential battleground states of Florida, Iowa and Ohio. As for state legislatures, Dems did good not great.

In terms of what the races tell us about the right kind of candidates to run for Congress and the presidency in 2020, I’m with Eric Levitz: there’s evidence that both deeply progressive and centrist candidates can perform well in swing states. And the ouster of a number of centrist Democratic senators in red states suggests that being a moderate isn’t a surefire bet against the right.

As for the losses of Gillum, O’Rourke and Abrams in the South, I’m hesitant to call them failures (especially Abrams, since Georgia has shamelessly assaulted the democratic process in recent years) — they broke new ground in hostile territory, and it would be foolish to write off their attempts as an exhaustion of the kind of political styles they represented. I will say, though, that I have a hunch that Trump may have been able to mobilize a non-trivial number of Republicans against them in the final weeks before the race through his aggressive interventions at rallies and on social media. I remain convinced that Trump has killer instincts as a culture war campaigner.

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

Newsletter: What should Dems prioritize for 2020?

Credit: Molly Adams

This is the opening comment from my newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

Priorities, priorities.

Last week Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote a piece arguing that 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls should prioritize climate policy, immigration reform, and pro-democracy reforms (end the filibuster, establish automatic voter registration, win statehood for DC/Puerto Rico, etc.) above all else.

He says that Medicare-for-all should not be a top 3 priority, mainly because the vicious fight required to pass it in 2021 would be too much of an opportunity cost for other legislation.

I don’t think I’m persuaded by that. I think Medicare-for-all should be a top 3 priority — here’s a quick run-down of why.

First of all, Medicare-for-all is hot right now, and Dems should capitalize on that.

Polling data shows that Medicare-for-all is clearly what the Democratic base wants: A recent poll by Data for Progress shows that among registered Democrats passing Medicare-for-all is a higher progressive policy priority than any other major issue.

Medicare-for-all also has cross-partisan appeal. A recent poll shows that 70% of voters support “providing Medicare to every American.” The poll found that 52% of Republicans support that proposition as well. Other polls have found similar levels of popularity. There are reasons to be skeptical that GOP support for it will endure — it’s unclear how many voters really understand that Medicare-for-all would ultimately seek to replace private health insurance, not supplement it. And once it enters the polarization vortex and Trump tags it as a threat to white people or private enterprise, then GOP interest in the policy will decline sharply. But there are good signs that Medicare-for-all appeals to the instincts of Americans across the political spectrum (which shouldn’t be too surprising given how immensely popularthe old system of Medicare is among all Americans) and that could weaken counter-mobilization efforts.

Medicare-for-all has got a significant amount of momentum already. A huge number of the leading 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have coalesced around it to prove their progressive credentials — it’s becoming a signaling mechanism for candidates to show they’ve got their finger on the pulse. The salience of the policy should make it easier to create a mandate for it within the party.

I’m not going to pretend that all of this means the fight for Medicare would be easy. It would be an ugly fight. Not only against the right, but also the private insurance industry, the hospital industry, and quite possibly many medical professionals afraid that their pay will be docked by cost-cutting pressures. But the movement that will be required to pass it — which would have to rise up across the nation — and the actual passage of the bill has the potential to transform political consciousness in America. Decommodifying health insurance and claiming health as a social right will be a paradigm-changer in terms of Americans’ relationship with the government. If it passed, it would change the very terrain upon which future political battles will be fought. While on one hand it would probably cost more time than a lot of other legislation, it also has disproportionate potential to ease the passage of subsequent left-leaning legislation. And even if Medicare-for-all proves to be out of reach, the emergence of a robust public option has the potential to be a transformative victory.

Lastly, Medicare-for-all is morally imperative. Obamcare was already struggling before Trump took office and it’s set to get worse, thanks to the GOP‘s nihilistic attacks on it. The US is the wealthiest country in the world, its healthcare system is atrocious and vulnerable to constant attacks, and the best and most sustainable solution that we know of is creating a government-backed health insurance system. How long can we procrastinate on what should be considered a prerequisite for calling ourselves a civilized society?

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.

Newsletter: Climate talk, the death of insider journalism, and incels

This is the opening comment from my newsletter, which you can read in full here and subscribe to here.

I recently wrote an article for VICE about how 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are blowing what may be our last opportunity to forestall catastrophic climate change, and it got me thinking about our struggles with climate change communication.

The perennial explanation for why the political class and the media avoid prioritizing climate change is that it’s unsexy. MSNBC host Chris Hayes — who probably pays more attention to the issue than any other major cable news host — called it a “palpable ratings killer” in July. And politicians are aware that most voters don’t consider climate change a top tier issue even if most of them are concerned about it.

This poses a major predicament: even if you’re a journalist or a politician with deep convictions about tackling climate change, it seems risky to home in on the issue too aggressively. If journalists give up too many viewers and politicians jeopardize too many votes by fixating on the issue, they may lose their ability to address the issue at all.

I’m sympathetic to this concern, but I don’t quite buy it. First and foremost because we have a moral imperative to figure out a solution to this challenge, and secondly because there are good reasons to think that climate change can be made into a highly compelling story.

The first point is simple: Politicians, journalists and any other sector involved in informing and mobilizing people to address climate change have to take risks in making it a top tier issue because there is no other option. We are currently on course to making the planet uninhabitable — if we don’t take risks now, civilization as we know it will end. And the longer we take to get around to dealing with the issue, the hard it will be to manage it.

Secondly, I am highly skeptical of the idea that climate change is inherently too boring or abstract to capture the interest of the public. In the 2000s journalist Ezra Klein rose to fame by illustrating that no policy issue — health care, social security, tax policy — is intrinsically beyond the comprehension or interest of the average citizen. By using a highly conversational, non-jargony, context-focused style of writing and analysis, he garnered the kind of readership for wonky policy reportage that was up until that point typically associated with gossipy White House coverage. That’s a lesson I absorbed while at Vox (which he co-founded): it’s incumbent on the writer to make any subject approachable.

I don’t know what exact hacks are needed to make climate change a more salient story in the national conversation, but there is a ton to work with. Climate change touches on every element of human survival — food, water, shelter, health, mobility. It threatens so many things people hold dear — the security of their children, their property, the outdoors, wildlife. It’s deeply political, posing a greater threat to the most vulnerable among us. And in American cultural life we’re already seeing that people do have a perverse kind of fascination with societal collapse: I suspect the superabundance of apocalyptic, zombie and dystopian films and shows we’re seeing these days reflects an ambient anxiety about our impending ecological catastrophe. There are so many ways to make the issue tangible and transform popular consciousness, we just need to experiment.

As for how politicians and policy players can mobilize voters — my article in VICE touches on a possible solution. Check out the article!

The rest of the newsletter, with reading recommendations and more, is here.