This is the latest installment in a series that began back in 2019, with an article I did for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome.
Many people wrote in to agree, disagree, or otherwise react. The online discussion begins here. But the most sustained line of response has been from my friend Eric Schnurer, a writer and long-time advisor to state and local governments.
Now, chapter four: crossing the Rubicon. Schnurer argues that this is more than just a familiar phrase. And he says that a U.S. Rubicon moment is in view—which would be triggered by a possible indictment of Donald Trump. Over to Eric Schnurer:
Crossing the Rubicon:
If the United States, in recent years, has been tracking the decline and fall of Republican Rome, when do we pass the point of no return?
By Eric B. Schnurer
As James Fallows has observed, Americans long have been fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and frequently fret whether a similar fate awaits our own. But the more pressing comparison is the collapse of the Roman Republic: How did a wealthy, powerful, and successfully self-governing people—proud of their frontier origins, piety and traditional values, and above all their origin story in throwing off monarchical rule—essentially commit democratic suicide and settle, more-or-less willingly, for a half-millennium of dictatorship?
Over the last two years I’ve been charting how our politics today increasingly resemble those of ancient Rome. From rising economic inequality, political violence, and governmental dysfunction on through the generally lackadaisical reaction of the Senate to a losing chief-executive candidate’s conspiracy to murder many of them, overthrow the government, and thereby block certifying his defeat, events in ancient Rome have remarkably paralleled some you might recognize more recently.
History isn’t destiny, of course; the demise of the Roman Republic is a point of comparison—not prediction. But the accelerating comparisons nonetheless beg the question: If one were to make a prediction, what comes next? What might signal the end of democracy as we know it? There is, it turns out, an easy answer at hand.
While there is no precise end date to the Republic, there was a bright-line occurrence generally recognized as the irreversible beginning of the end for participatory government. In fact, it is such a bright line that the event itself has become universally synonymous with “point-of-no-return”: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the river Rubicon.
And there is indeed an event looming—probably before the end of this year— that poses almost precisely the same situation as what provoked Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon: the possible indictment of former president Donald J. Trump.
Not long after empanelment of the special grand jury investigating the former president and the Trump Organization, Maggie Haberman, who has covered Trump for the past half-dozen years for The New York Times, tweeted that he is obsessed with the idea that he will soon be returned to office by the various, multiplying efforts to recount and overturn state-level results from the 2020 election. As Haberman reported, the impetus behind Trump’s restoration fever-dream is the realization that he needs the immunity afforded by the presidency to avoid prosecution for the career that got him there. Just last month, Michael Wolff recounted his conversations with Trump for his new book in a Times opinion essay and concluded that Trump believes that “[r]unning for president is the best way to directly challenge the prosecutors.”
Now the month prophesied in Trumpian circles for his restoration to the White House has arrived—and with it, the intelligence services are reporting increased online traffic on the subject, including calls for violence, not unlike the uptick in advance of January 6th. It is no coincidence that insurrectionists that day carried banners urging Trump to “Cross the Rubicon” and declaring “The Die Is Cast”— Caesar’s words upon alighting on the Italian side of the river—or that they will be with him to storm the forces of the Republic and ignite a civil war over Trump’s potential indictment: Avoiding criminal prosecution is precisely why Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army and ignited a civil war 21 centuries ago.
The ancient Roman Republic diverged from our notions of republican government in several respects. Although the word “republic” itself derives from a Latin phrase meaning “a thing of the people,” it was more like a closely-held corporation than anything we think of today as a public enterprise—more-or-less “owned” by those who operated it. Elected officials were expected to spend their own money on state functions like erecting public structures or organizing public events (such as the famous gladiatorial games), and in return they could expect to reap sizeable “profits” when they attained higher office. Today, we would think of basic Roman government as institutionalized graft.
Yet even the Romans had their limits. Officials who pushed the envelope too far could be criminally prosecuted. But the Romans also had a concept very similar to ours, and crucial to what motivated Caesar’s actions and is now animating Trump’s: As long as an official held “imperium”—essentially, the authority of the state itself— he was shielded from prosecution. As soon as he left office, however—boom!, he could be subjected to criminal charges.
Caesar, like most politicians, had committed his share of excesses and gained his share of enemies in his rise to the highest office in Rome, the consulship. After his consular year, he had secured the governorship of one of the more lucrative provinces—Transalpine Gaul—and, partially for self-advancement and partially to postpone prosecution, got his governorship extended to an unprecedented five years. Officials historically had been limited to serving only a single one-year term in most offices, in order to keep one man from accruing too much power, but constitutional norms had begun to fray under ambitious men like Caesar, who had his eyes on a second, and then hopefully permanent, consulship.
But he faced three obstacles. First, his governorship was scheduled to end six months before the beginning of the next consular term, so he would have to keep his army in the field until then to maintain his imperium and immunity to prosecution. Second, his political enemies had enacted a requirement that candidates had to campaign for consul in-person in Rome—which, thirdly, since it was illegal for a general to lead armed men into Italy or Rome itself, meant that Caesar had to choose: return to the city to campaign without legal immunity, almost certainly to face prosecution; forego the consulship, and thus forfeit any further hope of future immunity; or cross the Rubicon that formally separated Italy proper from the provinces at the head of his army—by definition an act of insurrection not only stripping his immunity but criminal in itself.
Caesar’s ultimate rise had begun with the Cataline conspiracy a decade or so earlier, which, as noted, bears a familial resemblance to Trump’s attempts to overturn the recent election and, both literally and figuratively, decapitate the government. Caesar emerged as Catiline’s most prominent defender against Cicero’s attempt to bring him to justice, while most of the Senate vacillated: Senate conservatives, known as the optimates (i.e., “the Best People”), chose largely to shrug off both the immediate assault on the state and the long-term threat Caesar in particular posed to republicanism. They soon lived to regret it.
For over a century Roman politics had been split between two parties, the optimates and the populares, who pushed for redistributionist policies to benefit the working class. The most famous of the latter were the Gracchi brothers, who both were assassinated for their liberal views (and thus often compared to the Kennedys). The patricians who ruled Rome, however, had long resisted fundamental economic reforms to benefit the great mass of the population, making only such concessions as necessary when times grew tense. This simply increased the internal tensions within society as the economy globalized, making those with the means richer and richer, hollowing out the middle class, and leaving more and more Romans at the edge of desperation.
By Caesar’s time, however, the populares were no longer so much true “Tribunes of the People” like the Gracchi, as ambitious patricians with an authoritarian bent who recognized anti-elite appeals to the disaffected mob as their pathway to power. Soon, three of these—Caesar, of course, plus Marcus Licinius Crassus, known as “the richest man in Rome,” and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great), the undisputedly dominant figure of the era—formed a Triumvirate and became, between them, the sole possessors of real power. The only real question was which one would prevail as the sole autocrat, and once Crassus was killed in a foreign war the inevitable final contest between Caesar and Pompey erupted in earnest.
The remaining defenders of the decaying old order allied by necessity with Pompey, the lesser evil. Caesar thus hoped to temporize, reach some sort of cohabitation arrangement with Pompey, and eventually prevail in the long term. But his enemies forced his hand with the threat of imminent criminal prosecution.
Caesar paused with his army on the Gaul side of the Rubicon. He knew he would be taking a dramatic risk by leading his army across the river—but his back was against the wall on the Rubicon’s far shore. His only path was forward. As he crossed, he uttered the famous phrase, “Alea iacta est”: “The die is cast.” The phrase has taken on the meaning of an inevitability, but Caesar meant quite the opposite: that, while he was committed and could not turn back, the outcome was far from inevitable but, rather, a tremendous gamble. At least for him.
The outcome for the Republic itself, however, was indeed at that point already cast as if in iron rather than in tumbling dice. Whatever the outcome of the ensuing war, whether Caesar or Pompey prevailed as dictator, the Republic—a system of self-government in which disputes were settled by politics rather than force, where power was dispersed rather than concentrated—was dead.
The defenders of the Republic folded more quickly than the French Army in World War II and left Rome open to Caesar. Pompey was driven out of Italy and eventually defeated and killed. But, as we know, opposition remained and Caesar was eventually assassinated, leading to another series of wars between the Caesarite party and a pseudo-republican party that more resembled a vigilante movement. The Caeserites prevailed in the form of Caesar’s trusted lieutenant, Marc Antony, and Caesar’s great-nephew, adopted son and designated heir, Octavian—known to history as Caesar Augustus. Antony and Octavian initially divided the empire between them, but inexorably came the war to settle sole rule over the Roman world. Octavian prevailed. Rome was now—and ever would remain—a dictatorship.
When Trump’s supporters urge him to cross the Rubicon and cast the die—events that become highly likely if he, like Caesar, faces indictment—that is what they contemplate.
What did all this mean for Rome? And what might it mean for us?
Augustus essentially achieved the settlement of unreconcilable political, social, and economic strains within Republican Rome that even his uncle Julius could not attain. The Augustinian settlement was essentially to substitute peace and prosperity for politics, and to impose the veneer of traditional piety and moral values over the reality of an increasingly heterodox and heterogenous society.
The Augustinian Settlement had something for everyone. Augustus, ultimately the canniest politician, was himself outwardly pious, dutiful, traditional, and respectful of republican forms—thus appealing to conservatives—while he presided over a cultural efflorescence fueled by a liberality in everything except political expression. The concentration of power in the Emperor allowed Rome to mobilize its economic and military resources in a way that the Republic had not, leading to five centuries of expanding geopolitical power and economic opulence the likes of which the world had never seen before. As Augustus boasted, he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Politics essentially ended for half a millennium—all government was the will of one man—and so did freedom of political speech and thought. But Romans, at least if they were lucky, were free, safe and wealthy beyond imagination in every other way. It was a trade-off they were more than happy to accept.
Will the Trumpist party similarly ultimately prevail once they cross the Rubicon? I have been predicting for years that something resembling a civil war will arise and something like Trumpists likely will carry the day in the short-term. But a reactionary philosophy that rejects fact in favor of fantasy, is economically retrograde and socially repugnant to the majority of Americans, can impose its rule for only so long.
Some politician someday—one we don’t yet know, whose thinking isn’t locked in to the current paradigm—will devise our own equivalent of the Augustinain settlement, a new consensus that both sides, today’s red and blue Americas, can grudgingly accept because it purports to give them both what they want. We can suppose that, like Augustus, this new leader will need to satisfy conservatives by paying obeisance to traditionalist values and forms. But he or she will recognize the new economic realities shaping the future of wealth and power: Thus, perhaps, underneath the public façade of conservative rectitude will flourish with tacit official approval a liberal urban society of tremendous innovation and wealth—in science, technology, culture, art, thought and belief generally.
In governance, however, any new regime will need to recognize the technological realities of which I have written frequently, in which people will be able to choose the social and political systems they prefer to express themselves individually and create “public goods” collectively. Governments as we know them today will be left to fill the role solely of the traditionalist “night watchman state”—maintaining physical order and extracting a “protection” fee in return—much like the ancient Roman state. The demise of liberal democracy, the end of virtually all politics, and perhaps a little performative traditionalism and a destructive civil war, may all be coming, anyway. But, in return, Blue America, like Rome, will be able to carry on pretty much as it wishes, rising to new heights of wealth and global power.
Will highly-educated Americans really be willing to settle for physical security and financial success beyond anything now imaginable, in return for abandoning the American Republic for an enlightened dictatorship? The Roman experience isn’t very encouraging on that score—but neither are contemporary Democrats.
When the crisis came, it was the optimates (i.e., “the Best People”) who were the last defenders of the Republic.
Why? Because the status quo worked for them, whereas the plebeians had long-since lost faith in “the system.” The supporters of the Republic were the cream of Roman society, those who, as the saying went, “had Greek” (world-class educations), married amongst themselves, and passed these advantages on to their children. The republican structures they defended—elections, limited and dispersed powers, rule of law—in turn supported the rest of their existing order: an increasingly globalized economy exacerbating distributional divides but benefiting their own class.
The optimates were tone deaf to the needs of those struggling to make a living, while the insurrectionists played to the working class in order to destroy what passed for democracy and impose their personal rule. Rich, out-of-touch, socially liberal democrats versus rich, demagogic authoritarians masquerading as the party of the working class—not far off from today. The difference is that progressives don’t recognize that they’re the new optimates.
As in Rome, life is good for those who live on the hills and could save the Republic. But the communities of the hinterlands, stretching off to the seemingly-faraway Rubicon, are increasingly devastated. Virtually all economic growth in the past decade has occurred in three coastal metros. Inequality has intensified. The opioid crisis has decimated countless communities of the interior. Increasingly-illiberal “progressives” are slowly losing not just the white working class but also Black and Latino workers, those for whom they think they speak.
Meanwhile, time grows short. As aggrieved souls are forced from their dying communities and traditional social structures, into a metropolitan economy that has no place for them, the army on the Rubicon draws closer every day to the city’s walls.
Over the weekend, this space held the third installment in the “Lessons of Rome” chronicles by my friend Eric Schnurer. This one went into the comparison between the Roman Senate, in the era of Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy, and the current one in Washington.
If you haven’t read it yet, please give it a try—among other reasons, for the speechwriter’s view of classic Latin rhetoric. This third piece also updated the “doomsday sundial”—a Roman Empire twist on the famous “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—and set its time to “a year before midnight.”
Now, some reader reactions. First, from a reader with extensive experience in national government:
Thank you for conveying the very thoughtful observations of Eric Schnurer comparing our situation to that of late republican Rome.
One striking element is the complacency highlighted by Schnurer at the time of Cicero, and so evident now in the mistaken belief that “it” can’t happen here because we’re “exceptional.”
As political scientist David Faris observed in a recent interview on “Vox,” we could not be more wrong. Republicans are working to deprive the majority of its ability to control the agenda or to change the leadership. If they succeed, the result will be undramatic but definitive: “People are going to wake up the next day and go to work, and take care of their kids, and live their lives, and democracy will be gone.”
For all their failures (which have become ever more obvious), the Founders did not have this outlook. They had a lively fear that “it” could indeed happen here, and they constructed the government they made to preclude that outcome.
Our misfortune is that, partly because of the deficiencies of that design (owing largely to several forced compromises) and partly because of later developments (such as the emergence of parties and of the filibuster), we face the reverse of one of their fears: a dictatorship not of the mob but of an entrenched minority. And we don't seem to be coping with that danger any better than did Ciceronian Rome. So we come to where Faris placed himself in his interview: “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024.”
He did not quite despair, nor evidently does Schnurer. But the hour is indeed late, and time by our “atomic clock” is swiftly passing.
Reading your précis of Schnurer’s articles (thanks for bringing this to a wider audience), and the lead in of O Tempora! O Mores! my mind did a sort of leap to the smart Alec translation as Oh Times, Oh Daily Mirror ! [JF note: this was from the fabulous mid-20th century British comedy duo Flanders and Swann, whose records I loved listening to as a boy.]...
Schnurer is bang on, about the corruption (I think it’s way beyond cynicism) at the heart of the not-so-grand old party.
I sometimes find it ironic that ‘conservatives,’ who should be conserving our institutions, so often slide into radicals’ intent on destroying those institutions. Their focus on ends by any means would make Machiavelli blush. [JF note: compare the different approaches to considering a Supreme Court nominee in an election year applied by Mitch McConnell in 2016, when the nominee was Merrick Garland, and 2020, when it was Amy Coney Barrett.]
It is a race against time in my view. Will they succeed in subverting American democracy before people wake up to the con trick. I suspect they will.
“Storm Before the Storm”—a reading tip:
I read with interest the excellent article comparing Rome with today’s political situation. It immediately brought to mind a book called The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan, written in 2017 about Rome between 146-78 BC, starting with the Gracchi brothers. He reached a similar conclusion to Eric Schnurer at the end of the book. You might know Duncan from his history podcast “The History of Rome,” the granddaddy of history podcasts on the net.
In the book he wrote about,“rising economic inequality, dislocation of traditional ways of life, increasing political polarization, the breakdown of unspoken rules of political conduct” as well as “a set of elites so obsessed with their own privileges that they refused to reform the system in time to save it.” The parallel between that and what you wrote caught my attention.
Looking Across the Atlantic (Ocean), from a reader in Texas:
This article is very well-taken. Reading Gibbon even 20 years ago felt like reading the news … now we can even go back to ancient Greek experience of demagogues.
I wonder if you would ask conservative Republicans you know, not whether they agree with those of us who fear a reprise of 1933 Germany, but if they could say at what point in German political history it would NOT have been wildly premature and hyperbolically alarmist to raise a cry that would bring developments to a halt. (Were that possible.)
Ecocide—the most sobering of the responses:
In these last four years of our own personal Catiline, I did read up on ancient Rome, and read Gibbon. I also wondered about the validity of democracy in this country, and now, with this article, the validity of democracy in Rome before Caesar.
It would seem to me that if there is a decline and fall of an American Empire, I agree that it would happen more quickly than the centuries it took Rome to splinter and disappear.
But I think the outside forces that will eliminate us will be natural in origin, and not a sleepy Chuck Grassley, Visigoths or Sandinistas pouring across the border at Brownsville. Argument by analogy may be the only tool historians have to predict the future, but it is still invalid.
It isn’t hard to see that our highly interconnected world is dependent on resources that are nearly magically acquired and brought to life, and that have a limited abundance and existence. Yet our lives are
increasingly dependent on them. So, just soothsayer-wise, I would
predict that industry will be chewing holes in the Congo in search of the latest element needed for the most advanced iPhone in 2050, when the world population will hit 10 billion and the oil will run out.
That while Bangladesh is awash with the Bengal Sea, the Musk Ox, Polar Bear and Caribou go extinct, Mar-al-Lago builds a wall around itself and starts pumping, and LA burns back into the desert it once was.
Those natural phenomena are actually predictable and I think, regardless of what surprises democracy has in store for us, will be the end of us.
Because we still solve problems like the Romans did, after all is said and done. By killing them. Yet we are far more destructive, given our machines, than they ever were. Rome never had the ability to kill the biosphere. Everyone in America, and indeed, on planet Earth, is participating in that execution right now.
The U.S. Senate’s abdication of duty at the start of this Memorial Day weekend, when 11 senators (nine of them Republican) did not even show up to vote on authorizing an investigation of the January 6 insurrection, makes the item below particularly timely.
Fifty-four senators (including six Republicans) voted to approve the investigative commission. Only 35 opposed it.
But in the institutionalized rule-of-the-minority that is the contemporary Senate, the measure “failed.” The 54 who supported the measure represented states totaling more than 190 million people. The 35 who opposed represented fewer than 105 million. (How do I know this? You take the list of states by population; you match them to senators; you split the apportioned population when a state’s two senators voted in opposite ways; and you don’t count population for the 11 senators who didn’t show up.)
The Senate was, of course, not designed to operate on a pure head-count basis. But this is a contemporary, permanent imbalance beyond what the practical-minded drafters of the Constitution would have countenanced.
Why “contemporary”? Because the filibuster was not part of the constitutional balance-of-power scheme. As Adam Jentleson explains in his authoritative book Kill Switch, “real” filibusters, with senators orating for hours on end, rose to prominence as tools of 20th-century segregationists. Their 21st-century rebirth in the form of phony filibusters (where senators don’t even have to make a pretense of holding the floor) has been at the hands of Mitch McConnell, who made them routine as soon as the Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006.
The essay below, by a long-time analyst and practitioner of governance named Eric Schnurer, was written before the Senate’s failure on May 28, 2021. But it could have been presented as a breaking-news analysis of the event.
Several days ago I wrote a setup for Schnurer’s essay, which I include in abbreviated form below. Then we come to his argument.
Back in 2019, I did an article for the print magazine on Americans’ long-standing obsession with the decline-and-fall narrative of Rome. Like many good headlines, the one for this story intentionally overstated its argument. The headline was, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” Of course it was bad! But the piece reviewed scholarship about what happened in the former Roman provinces “after the fall,” and how it prepared the way for European progress long after the last rulers of the Western Empire had disappeared.
Many people wrote in to agree and, naturally, to disagree. The online discussion begins here. One long response I quoted was from my friend Eric Schnurer. I had met him in the late 1970s when he was a college intern in the Carter-era White House speechwriting office, where I worked. Since then he has written extensively (including for The Atlantic) and consulted on governmental and political affairs.
In his first installment, in the fall of 2019, Schnurer emphasized the parts of the America-and-Rome comparison he thought were most significant—and worrisome. Then last summer, during the election campaign and the pandemic lockdown, he extended the comparison in an even-less-cheering way.
Now he is back, with a third and more cautionary extension of his argument. I think it’s very much worth reading, for its discourses on speechwriting in Latin, among other aspects. I’ve slightly condensed his message and used bold highlighting as a guide to his argument. But I turn the floor over to him. He starts with a precis of his case of two years ago:
I contrasted Donald Trump’s America then—mid-2019—with the Rome of the Gracchus brothers, a pair of liberal social reformers who were both assassinated. Of course, the successive murders of two progressive brothers at the top rung of national power would seem to suggest the Kennedys more than, say, Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren, to whom I compared them. But that’s to say that no historic parallels are perfect: One could just as fruitfully (or not) compare the present moment to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period we managed to make it through without ultimately descending into civil war.
Yet, historical events can be instructive, predictive—even prescriptive—when not fully de-scriptive of current times and customs.
What concerned me about the Roman comparison was, I noted at the time, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me.”
In the 1960s, such developments were in the future, although perhaps apparent then to the prescient …
The question that raised was the extent to which the tick-tock of republican decline in Rome could provide a chronometer something like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous “doomsday clock”:
If we could peg late summer 2019 to the Gracchi era—roughly up to 120 B.C.—with the fall of the Republic equated to Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and subsequent assumption of the dictatorship (roughly speaking, 50 B.C.), we could set our republican sundial at, more-or-less, “seventy years to midnight.” But time under our atomic-era clocks moves more quickly than in ancient Roman sundials, so how could we equate a seventy-year margin on a sundial to our own distance from a possible republican midnight? We’d need another contemporary comparison to understand not just where we stood, but also how fast we were moving.
A year later I wrote about the developments of 2020 that seemed to move us closer to midnight. I compared last year’s Trump to Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix: Despite common descriptions of Trump as a would-be Caesar, Sulla is, in terms of temperament and background, a closer match to The Donald: “Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives.”
Of perhaps greater similarity—and great concern, in my view—was the increasing hollowing out of the Roman state from a “common good” into simply another form of private corporation benefiting the already-wealthy and powerful who could grab hold of its levers and hive off its components … After a tumultuous reign, Sulla retreated to his villa at Mar-a-Lago, er, Puteoli, and Rome fell into a period of relative quiescence.
That took us from the 120’s B.C. in July 2019 to roughly 80 B.C. by August 2020: By that measure, our republican doomsday clock had lurched forward about 40 Roman years—a little more than halfway to midnight—in roughly a year …
But as U.S. politics fell into a period of relative quiescence lately, with Trump ensconced quietly at Puteoli—er, Mar-a-Lago—and a relatively calming, moderate and institutionalist Everyman (if no Cicero …) installed in the White House, I didn’t think much further about the Roman comparison.
That is, until last week, when I made an off-hand comment about a young family member’s misbehavior, jokingly complaining, “O tempora, O mores!”: “O the times, O the customs”—the most famous line from the most famous speech by Rome’s greatest lawyer, politician and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. I was suddenly struck by the similarity between the circumstances of Cicero’s famed oration and those we face now in the wake—and denial—of the assault on the Capitol of January 6.
I have a personal fondness for what have become known as Cicero’s “Catilinarian Orations”—a series of speeches he delivered at the height of a failed conspiracy to assault the citadels of republican governance and seize power. I read them in the original in my high school Latin class, at a time when my major focus was on school politics and, as the immediate past student body president, I was leading a similar (in my mind) effort to beat back a coup attempt by the would-be conspirator who had been defeated electorally by my chosen successor.
As a result, I found reading Cicero’s words uncovering, indicting, and overcoming Lucius Sergius Catilina (known to us as Catiline) and his co-conspirators, and thereby preserving democracy, rather thrilling. These orations—especially the first—have become famous as among the greatest speeches in history, not least because of the self-promoting Cicero’s promoting them as such. But to read them in the original is to recognize them as deservedly so.
Latin is an extremely complicated but flexible language. Its elaborate system of agreements between nouns, adjectives and verbs allows for words to be ordered in sometimes almost-random-seeming patterns requiring extensive detective skills to puzzle out the actual meaning of a sentence. At the peak of my Latin studies, for example, I could probably translate an average sentence in the great Latin epic, The Aeneid, at the rate of about one per hour. Reading Cicero in Latin, however, is like spreading warm butter over a piping-hot piece of bread: It simply flows.
Cicero could reach unequaled heights of high dudgeon with the simplest of sentences. He reached for his greatest in the opening lines of his first Catalinarian Oration to the Roman Senate. The immediacy of the language fairly leaps off the dead pages as if alive itself, overpowering the reader with the desperation of Cicero’s fight for democracy, his courage in the face of danger, his importuning his at-first-impassive audience seated in their clean white togas amidst the marble walls and red-cushioned banquettes, slowly distancing themselves from the censored Catiline as Cicero’s oratory builds in mighty waves.
Catiline was yet another aristocratic yet amoral politician who had aimed at absolute power by appealing cynically to the reactionary foot soldiers of Sulla’s former army and their “blue-collar” supporters. But he nonetheless was headed to a loss in the consular election of 63 B.C., which would have ended his political ambitions, so he conspired to overthrow the Roman state, intending literally to decapitate the official vote count on election day by killing the consul overseeing it—Cicero—and seizing violent control of the government.
Cicero could be considered something of a moderate, an institutionalist who revered the Republic as he rose to power in its capital despite being what the Romans called a “new man,” one who had made his own way from an undistinguished upbringing in the hinterlands (“Cicero” means “chickpea,” a literal and uncomplimentary nod to the family’s roots).
Upon uncovering the conspiracy, Cicero called an emergency meeting of the Senate to denounce this attempt to short-circuit the election and end republican government through violence. Cicero was surprised that Catiline dared pompously to show himself at the day’s proceedings, as if his efforts to undermine the state were perfectly proper, and to deny he was doing what everyone knew he was doing: “When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?”
But what is most notable about the famed opening of this first and greatest oration is Cicero’s clear astonishment at the blasé reaction of much of the Senate to this open assault on republican values. “O the times, O the customs,” he responds, and then continues:
“The Senate understands these things, the Consul sees them; yet this man still lives. He lives? Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, he takes part in public debate, he notes and marks out with his eyes each one of us for slaughter!”
Despite the fact that, at this point, Catiline’s intent to murder Cicero and various other members of the Senate, to stop the vote count and overturn the foregone election results, and unlawfully to seize the levers of government through violence is well known to all of them, a good number of these very same legislators and leaders shrug the whole thing off. Some sympathized with his political program; others were implicated in the plot; still others were basically in the same boat as Catiline, having committed similar crimes and sexual debaucheries that limited their political futures; and still others were perfectly fine with ending the trappings of republicanism if it meant they retained their power and Senate seats. And some simply couldn’t be roused to care.
The conspiracy ultimately collapsed and was defeated, but not without further militant uprisings aided by Rome’s enemies abroad. Catiline, a demagogue but in the end not the best of politicians or insurrectionists, was killed. Democracy, and the old order of things, seemed to have survived, and matters returned to a more-or-less normal state under Cicero’s stable hand.
But it turned out to be a brief reprieve. The rot had already set in. What mattered most in the long-term was not the immediate threat of the insurrectionists, but rather the complacency, if not sympathy, of the other ostensibly-republican leaders. It revealed the hollowness of not just their own souls but also the nation’s.
Another 10 months in America, another 15 years forward on the Roman sundial. At this rate, we’re about a year before midnight.
I don’t know how many people in the reading public would recognize the name Dan Frank. Millions of them should. He was a gifted editor, mentor, leader, and friend, who within the publishing world was renowned. His untimely death of cancer yesterday, at age 67, is a terrible loss especially for his family and colleagues, but also to a vast community of writers and to the reading public.
Minute by minute, and page by page, writers gripe about editors. Year by year, and book by book, we become aware of how profoundly we rely on them. Over the decades I have had the good fortune of working with a series of this era’s most talented and supportive book editors. Some day I’ll write about the whole sequence, which led me 20 years ago to Dan Frank. For now, I want to say how much Dan Frank meant to public discourse in our times, and how much he will be missed.
Dan started working in publishing in his 20s, after college and graduate school. While in his 30s he became editorial director at Viking Books. Among the celebrated books he edited and published there was Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick, which was a runaway bestseller and a critical success. It also represented the sort of literary nonfiction (and fiction) that Dan would aspire to: well-informed, elegantly written, presenting complex subjects accessibly, helping readers enter and understand realms they had not known about before. As it happened, Gleick worked with Dan on all of his subsequent books, including his biographies of Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton, as well as Faster and The Information.
In 1991, after a shakeup at Pantheon, Dan Frank went there as an editor, and from 1996 onward he was Pantheon’s editorial director and leading force. As Reagan Arthur, the current head of the Knopf, Pantheon, and Schocken imprints at Penguin Random House, wrote yesterday in a note announcing Dan’s death:
During his tenure, Dan established Pantheon as an industry-leading publisher of narrative science, world literature, contemporary fiction, and graphic novels. Authors published under Dan were awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, several National Book Awards, numerous NBCC awards, and multiple Eisners [for graphic novels] ….
For decades, Dan has been the public face of Pantheon, setting the tone for the house and overseeing the list. He had an insatiable curiosity about life and, indeed, that curiosity informed many of his acquisitions. As important as the books he published and the authors he edited, Dan served as a mentor to younger colleagues, endlessly generous with his time and expertise. Famously soft-spoken, a “writer’s editor,” and in possession of a heartfelt laugh that would echo around the thirteenth floor, he was so identified with the imprint that some of his writers took to calling the place Dantheon.
There are surprisingly few photos of Dan available online. I take that as an indication of his modesty; of the contrast between his high profile within the publishing world and his intentionally low profile outside it; and of his focus on the quiet, interior work of sitting down with manuscripts or talking with authors. The only YouTube segment I’ve found featuring him is this one from 2015, when Dan interviewed the author Thomas Mallon at the Center for Fiction in New York. (I am using this with the Center’s permission.)
Dan is seated at the right, with his trademark round glasses. The clip will give an idea of his demeanor, his gentle but probing curiosity, his intelligence and encouragement, his readiness to smile and give a supportive laugh. Watching him talk with Mallon reminds me of his bearing when we would talk in his office at Pantheon or at a nearby restaurant.
Everything that is frenzied and distracted in modern culture, Dan Frank was the opposite of. The surest way to get him to raise a skeptical eyebrow, when hearing a proposal for a new book, was to suggest some subject that was momentarily white-hot on the talk shows and breaking-news alerts. I know this firsthand. The book ideas he steered me away from, and kept me from wasting time on, represented guidance as crucial as what he offered on the four books I wrote for him, and the most recent one where he worked with me and my wife, Deb.
Dan knew that books have a long gestation time—research and reporting, thinking, writing, editing, unveiling them to the world. They required hard work from a lot of people, starting with the author and editor but extending to a much larger team. Therefore it seemed only fair to him that anything demanding this much effort should be written as if it had a chance to last. Very few books endure; hardly any get proper notice; but Dan wanted books that deserved to be read a year after they came out, or a decade, or longer, if people were to come across them.
The publisher’s long list of authors he worked with, which I’ll include at the bottom of this post, only begins to suggest his range. When I reached the final page of the new, gripping, epic-scale novel of modern China by Orville Schell, called My Old Home, it seemed inevitable that the author’s culminating word of thanks would be to his “wonderful, understated” editor, Dan Frank.
What, exactly, does an editor like this do to win such gratitude? Some part of it is “line editing”—cutting or moving a sentence, changing a word, flagging an awkward transition. Dan excelled at that, but it wasn’t his main editing gift. Like all good editors, he understood that the first response back to a writer, on seeing new material, must always and invariably be: “This will be great!” or “I think we’ve really got something here.” Then, like all good editors, Dan continued with the combination of questions, expansions, reductions, and encouragements that get writers to produce the best-feasible version of the idea they had in mind. Their role is like that of a football coach, with the pre-game plan and the halftime speech: They’re not playing the game themselves, but they’re helping the athletes do their best. Or like that of a parent or teacher, helping a young person avoid foreseeable mistakes.
You can read more about Dan Frank’s own views of the roles of author, editor, publisher, and agent, in this interview in 2009, from Riverrun Books. It even has a photo of him! And you can think about the books he fostered, edited, and helped create, if you consider this part of Reagan Arthur’s note:
Dan worked with writers who were published by both Pantheon and Knopf. His authors include Charles Baxter, Madison Smartt Bell, Alain de Botton, David Eagleman, Gretel Ehrlich, Joseph J. Ellis, James Fallows, James Gleick, Jonathan Haidt, Richard Holmes, Susan Jacoby, Ben Katchor, Daniel Kehlmann, Jill Lepore, Alan Lightman, Tom Mallon, Joseph Mitchell, Maria Popova, Oliver Sacks, Art Spiegelman, and many, many others.
Deb and I will always be grateful to have known Dan Frank, and to have worked with him. We send our condolences to his wife, Patty, and their sons and family. The whole reading public has benefited, much more than most people know, from his life and work.
The renowned filmmaker Ken Burns has a new project called UNUM, about the sources of connection rather than separation in American life.
His latest segment involves “Communication” in all its aspects, and it combines historical footage with current commentary. Some of the modern commenters are Yamiche Alcindor, Jane Mayer, Megan Twohey, Kara Swisher, and Will Sommer. You can see their clips here.
One more of these segments covers the revolution in political communication wrought by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses known as “fireside chats.” It was drawn from Burns’s earlier documentary Empire of the Air, which was narrated by Jason Robards. You can see a clip from that documentary here.
As part of the UNUM series of contemporary response to historical footage, Burns’s team asked me to respond to the FDR segment. (Why me? In 1977—which was 44 years after FDR’s first fireside chat, and 44 years ago, as of now—the newly inaugurated President Jimmy Carter gave his first fireside chat, which I helped write. It’s fascinating to watch, as a historical artifact; you can see the C-SPAN footage here.)
This is what I thought about FDR’s language, and how it connects to the spirit of our moment in political time:
For reference, here is the text version of what I said in the Burns video, about those FDR talks, as previously noted here:
The most important words in Franklin Roosevelt’s initial fireside chat, during the depths of Depression and banking crisis in 1933, were the two very first words after he was introduced.
They were: My friends.
Of course political leaders had used those words for centuries. But American presidents had been accustomed to formal rhetoric, from a rostrum, to a crowd, stentorian or shouted in the days before amplification. They were addressing the public as a group—not families, or individuals, in their kitchens or living rooms: My friends. A few previous presidents had dared broadcast over the radio—Harding, Coolidge, Hoover. But none of them had dared imagine the intimacy of this tone—of trying to create a national family or neighborhood gathering, on a Sunday evening, to grapple with a shared problem.
Roosevelt’s next most important words came in the next sentence, when he said “I want to talk for a few minutes” with his friends across the country about the mechanics of modern banking. Discussing, explaining, describing, talking—those were his goals, not blaming or declaiming or pronouncing. What I find most remarkable in the tone that followed was a president talking up to a whole national audience, confident that even obscure details of finance could be grasped if clearly explained, rather than talking down, to polarize and oversimplify.
Consciously or unconsciously, nearly every presidential communication since that time has had FDR’s model in mind. In 1977 the newly inaugurated 39th president Jimmy Carter gave a fireside chat about the nation’s energy crisis, a speech that, as it happens, I helped write. Nearly every president has followed Roosevelt’s example of the basic three part structure of a leader’s speech at time of tragedy or crisis: First, expressing empathy for the pain and fear of the moment; second, expressing confidence about success and recovery in the long run; and third, offering a specific plan, for the necessary next steps.
Some of these presentations have been more effective, some less. But all are operating against the background, and toward the standard of connection, set by the 32nd president, Franklin Roosevelt, starting in 1933. “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan,” he said in that first fireside chant. “Let us unite in banishing fear.”
The opening words of that talk had been “My friends.” His closing words were, “Together we cannot fail.”
The pandemic ravaged America’s big cities first, and now its countryside. The public-health and economic repercussions have been felt everywhere. But they have been hardest on the smallest businesses, and the most vulnerable families and communities.
This is an update, following a report last month, on plans to repair the damage now being done.
1) What the federal government can do: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a group concentrating on the business-structure, technological, political, and other obstacles that have held small cities and rural areas back—and how they might be reversed.
This month the ILSR released a report on steps the federal government could take to foster business and civic renewal at the local level. The report is available in PDF here, and a summary is here. The larger argument is designed to:
… help the federal government avoid the mistakes made in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis …
Rather than the housing sector [as in the previous crisis], the current economic fallout is decimating America’s small businesses. Nearly 100,000 small, independent businesses have already closed their doors permanently, with Black-owned businesses taking the biggest hit. As of early November, small business revenue was down a stunning 31 percent from January. As small businesses close or hang on by their fingernails, meanwhile, a handful of big corporations are recording massive profits, increasing their already-dominant market share, and dramatically accelerating concentration of the economy….
People are losing their dreams and livelihoods. Neighborhoods are losing beloved local stores and gathering spots. The country is losing much of its local productive capacity. To answer this generational challenge, we must have a federal economic recovery strategy focused on rebuilding, creating, and growing America’s small, independent businesses.
The report covers large policy areas—a different approach to antitrust—and very tangible specifics, like the way credit-card processing fees are handled. It is certainly worth consideration by the Biden team. (And, in the same vein, here is another worthwhile piece, by Maddie Oatman in Mother Jones, on the importance of economic prospects for rural America.)
2) What some state governments can do (a California model): Responding to a crisis that is both global and intensely local naturally involves a combination of measures—international efforts to detect and contain disease, nationwide economic strategies, and city-by-city and state-by-state responses to the problems and opportunities of each locale.
One of California’s innovations that deserves broader attention is its “Little Hoover Commission.” After World War II, current president Harry Truman appointed former president Herbert Hoover to head a commission looking into broad questions of government organization and efficiency. That was the “big” Hoover Commission.
This month, the Little Hoover Commission has released its report on how badly the pandemic-era economic implosion is hurting businesses and families in California, and what might be done about it. The executive summary is here, and the full report is here.
I won’t attempt to summarize the whole thing here, but in essence their recommendation is an emergency effort to link public and private resources of all sorts—individual donors, NGOs, corporations, financial institutions—in a “rebuilding fund.” The fund, in turn, would concentrate on small businesses, and especially those in disadvantaged communities. One of its recommendations:
The state needs to use its megaphone to make financial institutions, private investors, and philanthropic donors aware of the Rebuilding Fund and to encourage high-net-worth individuals, impact investors, and major corporations to lend and/or donate to the Rebuilding Fund.
This may include working with regional business councils to disseminate information about the Rebuilding Fund and explain why it is vital to support small businesses, especially those in underserved communities. It may also include fully leveraging existing state investment networks..
In order to encourage investment, GO-Biz and IBank should also develop a strategy for publicly recognizing institutional investors and explore additional means for incentivizing participation.
In parallel with this effort, two California-based business-and-economic authorities, Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca, have put out a paper on the urgency of a new federal stimulus program. (For the record, both of them are friends of mine.) They say:
It is incumbent on the federal government to provide more generous and flexible funding for state and local governments. Governors and mayors across the country are pleading for help ahead of a challenging winter. Most states and cities have exhausted rainy-day funds and are facing a collective shortfall of $400 billion or more, according to the most recent estimates.
Because most state and local governments cannot legally spend more than they receive in revenues, they need federal funds to cover their growing fiscal gaps. Without such support, they will have no choice but to raise taxes or cut essential services and employment in health, public safety, and education, as many are already doing. Either option will undermine the countercyclical effects of federal stimulus, thereby weakening the recovery.
At the fiat of Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate seems likely to end this year without addressing the states’ and cities’ needs. Many states and cities are improvising in useful ways, but national crises require a national response. Help!
3) Ways around the college-degree bottleneck: Research universities and four-year colleges are simultaneously the glory and the heartbreak of America’s educational system. They’re the glory for obvious reasons. They’re the heartbreak because of the financial challenges for many liberal-arts schools, and the student-debt burdens for millions of young people, and the factors that can make higher education reinforce existing privileges, rather than offset them.
The negative power of judging people purely by sheepskin credentials is very familiar. (I actually did an Atlanticcover story about it 35 years ago, here.) But a positive counterpart in the past few years has been rapidly opening pathways to careers that don’t require a four-year degree. That’s what we’ve emphasized in our reports on community colleges, “career technical” programs in high schools, apprenticeship systems, and other ways of matching people with the opportunities of this moment.
Last week The New York Timeshad a story by Steve Lohr with the headline, “Up to 30 Million in U.S. Have the Skills to Earn 70% More, Researchers Say.”
This is a great headline that conveys the essential point: There are opportunities (post-pandemic) for people who for various reasons have not completed the four-year bachelor’s gantlet. More information is available at Opportunity@Work and through the Rework America Alliance. (For the record, I know many of the people involved in the Opportunity and Reword initiatives.)
As with previous dispatches, none of these approaches is “the” answer to this era’s many crises. But they’re all potential parts of an answer. They deserve attention.
When I was a kid, the sin of returning books late to the public library populated a category of dread for me next to weekly confessions to the Catholic priest (what can an 8-year-old really have to confess?) and getting caught by the dentist with a Tootsie Roll wrapper sticking out of my pocket. So decades later, when I heard about libraries going “fine-free,” it sounded like an overdue change and a nice idea.
Collecting fines for overdue books has been going on for over a century, originally seen as a source of revenue and as an incentive for people to behave responsibly and actually return borrowed books. Then, as early as the 1970s, research and experiments with going fine-free began to pick up steam. But as recently as four years ago, over 90 percent of libraries in the U.S. were still charging small change for late returns.
A Seinfeld episode from 1991, called The Library Cop, seems at once timely and untimely. This is Seinfeld; it will make you laugh.
Missions, Policies, Changes:
The last five years have been very busy in the world of overdue fines. In what has been the “Fine-Free Movement,” many librarians have begun to question the traditional policy of overdue fines, and attitudes have begun to change. Are fines consistent with a fundamental mission of libraries: to serve the public with information and knowledge? And to address that mission equitably across the diverse population of rich and poor library users?
A 2016 Colorado State Library system report showed that eliminating overdue fines removed barriers to access for children. While some people only notice fines as an irritation, others feel the weight heavily enough to be driven away from the library.
In 2017, a Library Journalpoll of 450 libraries found that over 34 percent considered eliminating at least some fines.
In 2018, a poll of Urban Libraries Council (ULC) member libraries found that the most common reason (54 percent, dwarfing all others) responding libraries had gone fine-free was that eliminating fines increased access for low-income users and children.
In January, 2019, the city of San Francisco issued an extensively-researched and influential report called Long Overdue, on the impact of fines on the mission of libraries, and the costs of eliminating fines on libraries, users, and the city and county of San Francisco. The report ultimately recommended eliminating overdue fines throughout the public library system.
When the pandemic closed libraries and made it hard or impossible for people to return books, many libraries revisited their policies on overdue fines. In Washington D.C., an early shorter-term amnesty experiment at the beginning of COVID-19 grew into a subsequent vote by the Public Library Board of Trustees to expand eliminating fines for only youth, to everyone.
Experiments in fines, amnesties, alternatives:
Libraries have been experimenting with lots of different ways to address fines for overdue books. Some stopped fining all patrons; others only children or youth; still others exempted active military and veterans from fines. Some forgive fines up to a certain dollar amount. Santa Barbara, California, follows one common practice—forgiving fines for a certain number of days (30 in this case) days, then charging for the cost of the book, which can be forgiven upon its return.
Lost or damaged books are in a different category. The loss of a book is much more costly and cumbersome to a library than a late return, and libraries work out various ways to address that.
When libraries offer popular amnesty periods for returning overdue books, the books often pour in like gushers. An amnesty program in Chicago brought in 20,000 overdue items; Los Angeles nearly 65,000; San Francisco just shy of 700,000. And a bonus: After the Chicago library went fine-free, thousands of users whose fees were forgiven returned to the library for new cards, and readers checked out more books overall than before.
Other libraries found substitutes for monetary fines. In 2018, the public libraries in Fairfax County, Virginia, began a food-for-fines program, which collected 12,000 pounds of food to donate to a nonprofit food pantry. Each donated item accrued one dollar toward a maximum $15 fine forgiveness. In Queens, New York, the public library has a program for young people to “read down” their 10-cent per day fines. One half hour of reading earns one dollar in library bucks to pay off fines.
Calculating costs of fines and the benefits of going fine-free:
The 2017 Library Journal poll of about 450 libraries across the country estimated that nearly $12 million in monthly library fines would be collected nationwide that year.
In fact, loss of revenue takes different size bites from libraries’ budgets. Some seemed like nibbles. When the New Haven, Connecticut, public library went fine-free in July 2020, the sum of overdue fines was less than one-quarter of one percent of the library’s annual budget. In San Francisco, fines in FY 2017-18 represented 0.2 percent of the operating budget. In Schaumburg Township, Illinois, 0.25 percent of the annual budget. In Santa Barbara, 1 percent. The St. Paul, Minnesota, libraries found that they spent $250,000 to collect $215,000 in fines.
But a late 2018 ULC poll of its roughly 160 members reported that one in five libraries that were considering eliminating fines named the biggest deterrent as financial. (Only larger was political reasons, at 34 percent.) The Long Overdue report found that fines disproportionately harmed library customers in low-income areas and those with larger proportions of Black residents. While libraries in all areas “accrued fines at similar rates,” those located in areas of lower income and education and higher number of Black people have “higher average debt amounts and more blocked users.”
As Curtis Rogers, the Communications Director of the Urban Libraries Council described the findings to me: “Overdue fines do not distinguish between people who are responsible and those who are not—they distinguish between people who have or do not have money.”
Funding sources for libraries vary considerably. Some libraries enjoy a secure line item in a city or county budget. Others patch together a more fragile existence of fundraising, philanthropy, public bonds and levies, and other sources.
Other factors have changed the landscape as well. The growth of e-book lending, which can automatically time out and incur no fines, have cut into overall fine revenue numbers somewhat.
To make up for losses in revenues, libraries have come up with creative answers. For example: processing passport renewals; a “conscience jar” for overdue books; charging fees for replacing lost cards and for copying, scanning, and faxing; charging rent for community rooms or theaters; and general tightening of spending.
The impact of fines should be measured in ways beyond cash revenues. Collecting fines and blocking accounts can be time-consuming, stressful, and unpleasant for librarians, and can cause general discomfort and even ill will in a community.
I witnessed a small episode of the toll that fines can take on the strong currency of people’s trust and goodwill in libraries. During a summer visit a few years ago to the public library in an unnamed town in the middle of the country, I was hanging around the check-out-desk when I saw a man reach the front of the line to borrow a few books. The librarian told him that his card was blocked, and he needed to pay his fines before he could borrow the book. The man was part of the town’s sizable Spanish-speaking population, and he didn’t understand the librarian. She repeated her message, louder each time. A line was building at the check-out. Finally, the man went to fetch his elementary-school-age daughter to translate for him. It all ended badly: He was embarrassed, the daughter was embarrassed. Others like me who witnessed the exchange were embarrassed. The man left without borrowing the books. The librarian was stuck behind non-transparent rules, although I have seen more gracious handling of such situations.
In 2016, the Orange Beach, Alabama, public libraries swapped overdue fines with voluntary donations, which they soon dropped as well. Steven Gillis, the director of the public library, wrote that the overall goodwill the library earned in the community with their new fine-free policy had leveraged into increased municipal funding from a sympathetic and appreciative city council.
The Long Overdue report also found that eliminating fines increased general goodwill between users and staff, and also increased the numbers of users and the circulation of books. They saw no increases in late book returns.
* * *
In 2018, a young research fellow at the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), Nikolas Michael, set out to tell the story of libraries going fine-free by creating an interactive map, which has since become one of ULC’s most used resources.
Each arrow on the map represents a library that ULC has logged to tell its story of going fine-free. The gold arrows are ULC member libraries; silver are non-member libraries.
The map is interactive; click on an arrow and you’ll see some of the whys, wherefores, and impact of the change on a particular library. The map updates with each additional entry.
Curtis Rogers, from ULC, and Betsey Suchanic, a program manager there, described on a Zoom call the background and impact the map has made on telling the story and building a movement.
The map helps libraries make well-informed decisions, as they use it for research and evidence to weigh the pros and cons of going fine-free.
In Philadelphia, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker called for a hearing to explore eliminating fines at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She directly referenced the ULC map of fine-free libraries as evidence. ULC also submitted written testimony for the hearing.
The map and ULC’s other reporting on the fine-free movement contribute to larger-context conversations—for example, on the topic of the pros and cons of other kinds of municipal fines, like parking tickets.
The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County just went fine-free, and they used the map specifically to make their case to their board. You can see the map on page 8 of the library’s PowerPoint presentation.
* * *
America’s current national focus on issues of racial, economic, educational, health, and environmental equity, and on policing and justice, has a way of reaching a sound-bite ending in media segments or conference panel wrap-ups. It goes something like this: “We need to have a national conversation about …”
Public libraries, which are in business to be responsive to public needs and wants, are a model for moving beyond conversations to action. For example, public libraries open their doors to homeless people, they feed hungry children in after-school programs, they offer free Wi-Fi access for people and places (especially rural) where it is hard to come by, and in increasing numbers, they find ways to forego monetary fines. These actions shore up in a tangible way a major mission of public libraries: to provide equal access to information and knowledge for all citizens.
As it was in 2016, so it is again in 2020: A central axis of national-election results is the rural-urban gulf. Larger cities—really, conurbations of any sort—mainly went for Joe Biden. Donald Trump’s major strength was in the smallest cities and in rural areas.
Obviously there has been more to Donald Trump’s power than purely regional dynamics. (In particular, there are racial dynamics, as laid out here and here and here.) And as Deb Fallows and I have argued for years, the United States looks more hopelessly divided when it comes to national elections than it does from any other perspective. For instance, see these dispatches from western Kansas, back in 2016.
But also obviously, national elections matter, and regional and locational polarization makes every other challenge for America more difficult. In a new paper for Brookings, John Austin argues that Midwestern voting patterns for Trump and Biden show how the sense of being “left behind” fuels resentment-driven politics—and how a sense of possibility can have the opposite effect. August Benzow of The Economic Innovation Group has a related paper on the stark differences within rural America on racial diversity, economic positioning, and political outlook.
Does anyone have an idea of how to blunt these differences and open more opportunities? Especially as a new administration faces all the economic, public health, law-enforcement, and other crises the new Biden team is about to take on? Here are some recent items worth noticing:
1) A Marshall Plan for Middle America: During election years, reporters troop into cities (and especially diners) in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other parts of “interior America” to get political quotes. Then, typically, the press spotlight moves someplace else.
This past weekend in The Washington Post, the mayors of eight of these middle-American cities wrote about what could be done to move their areas ahead. These are places we know and have written about, many of whose mayors we also know personally. The cities are Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, and Youngstown in Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and Huntington and Morgantown, West Virginia. All are in the Appalachian or Ohio River Valley regions, often stereotyped in national discourse as the land of coal mines and decrepit factories.
The mayors argue that it is time to draw on the region’s manufacturing heritage, and recreate its economy in a fundamental way. For instance:
According to our research, taking advantage of our community assets, geographic positioning and the strengths of our regional markets can help create over 400,000 jobs across the region by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrades to buildings, energy infrastructure and transportation assets.
Renewable sources of power are proving less expensive, and fossil fuel companies are increasingly dependent on federal subsidies to survive. Couldn’t these subsidies be strategically shifted to invest in a green economy that keeps these largely suburban and rural jobs but transitions them, with federal support, into new industries that will grow in the 21st century?
Like our friends at Reimagine Appalachia—a grass-roots community and environmental organization—we believe a Marshall Plan-scale reinvestment is necessary. Rather than a “Green New Deal,” our plan would seed long-term regional investments in Appalachia’s rural and suburban communities, while leveraging the technological successes of our tentpole cities to assist them. The same goes for our neighbors in the Ohio River Valley throughout the Rust Belt and up to the Great Lakes region.
2) Reducing Polarization by Modernizing Rural Policy: The political and cultural ramifications of a rural-urban divide are hot topics journalistically. “Rural policy,” not so much. But in a new report for Brookings (available here), Anthony Pipa and Nathalie Geismar argue that straightening out the rat’s-nest of programs intended to help rural America could make a big difference.
Rat’s nest? Take a look at this organization chart included in the Brookings report:
“The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to further disrupt local economies that in 2019 were still recovering from the Great Recession” and other long-term disruptions, Pipa and Geismar write. They add:
Just recently, COVID-19 prevalence in nonmetro U.S. areas surpassed those in metro areas for the first time; Rural residents are now almost 2.5 times more likely than urban residents to die from the virus. This is compounded by the decreasing access to health care that many rural communities face …
Now, rural communities must navigate a virtual world of work with intermittent broadband access and adapt to additional shocks to manufacturing and agriculture supply chains ….
Despite these challenges, rural communities are diverse—both demographically and economically—and entrepreneurial. They help power, feed, and protect America at rates disproportionate to other geographies. They house 99 percent of wind power capacity and will play a key role in national climate strategies that require investments in clean energy infrastructure.
The report has many recommendations, but here are the three main ones:
Launch anew development corporation, to invest in local vision and leadership through long-term block grants at the community level and innovative financing tools that give communities a fighting chance to strengthen and renew their local institutions, economies, and vision.
Create a national rural strategy, elevate White House and interagency leadership, and undertake a set of specific and targeted reforms to enhance federal coherence and effectiveness.
Appoint abipartisancongressional commission to undertake a top-to-bottom review regarding the effectiveness of federal assistance and build political momentum to transform federal rural policy.
3) Local journalism and local recovery: This is a big ongoing theme, which will only gain in importance if recovery efforts like those mentioned above are giving a serious try in communities across the country. Margaret Sullivan of TheWashington Post, a former editor herself and an indispensable media observer, published a book this year about the accelerating forces working against local news. Just after this year’s election, Dan Kennedy, another important longtime media writer, argued on the GBH news site that shoring up local journalism would have direct benefits community-by-community, plus the broader potential of calming down now-fevered national discussions. On the Poynter site, Rick Edmonds—yet another important longtime media writer—gives a comprehensive overview of how “shoring up” might actually work. For instance:
As the pandemic advertising recession and longstanding negative trends have made the financial precariousness of these enterprises obvious, Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news. The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.
My take comes from conversations with a variety of advocacy groups pushing one form or another of legislative assistance. A surprising favorite approach has emerged, too—direct subsidies for news subscribers, local journalists and small business advertisers.
That’s the structure of HR 7640, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and more than 70 co-sponsors from both parties.
There is a lot more detail in Edmonds’s piece, and the others. (See also this pre-election analysis at the Ground Truth Project, by Steven Waldman, whose work I have described here.) And while I’m at it, please check out the latest dispatch from John Miller, creator of the film Moundsville, about regional culture gaps. Also this, by Katherine Bindley in TheWall Street Journal, about big-city tech-industry people who have considered entirely different careers, in entirely different parts of the country, because of the pandemic.
Important transformation work is underway at the national level, as I’ll discuss in an upcoming print-magazine article. But that would be doomed, or at least limited, without comparably intense efforts to improve local-level prospects. These ideas are a start.
What else is going on in the country, with less than two weeks in this consequential election season? Here is a sampling of recent articles and developments worth notice.
Prospects for local journalism: The strength and importance of local journalism have always grown from its attention to the local: What is happening in the town or region, what is getting better or worse, how local institutions are responding. Even as national politics have become more polarized and tribal, local news organizations have often been able to focus attention and engagement on important issues (rather than divisive spectacles) that can be solved (rather than just argued about).
This is why several trends of recent years have been so destructive in civic terms. These include the economic pressures on small, independent news outlets; the gobbling up of many surviving outlets by private-equity chains; and the determination of national TV chains like Sinclair to convert local TV-news outlets into extensions of the national-politics crusades. A recent story by Davey Alba and Jack Nicas in The New York Times has drawn a lot of attention for showing how the Sinclair model—franchised, faux-“local” versions of national messaging—is spreading to the print and online realms.
Some recent developments worth noting, on the other side:
From Poynter, an essay by Steven Waldman on why these new pressures on local journalism matter, and what could be done about them. Waldman, a longtime friend, is among other things a co-founder of Report for America, which I have written about, and of the Rebuild Local News coalition. In his Poynter essay he points out the goods and bads of this moment in local news:
As a point of reference, consider this: One of the most positive trends has been the rise of local nonprofit news organizations. Today, there are about 300 of them, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Yes, that’s less than one quarter of the number of these faux news sites that have popped up recently.
The problem is increasingly not that communities will get no information but that they’ll get disinformation, or information whose provenance is unknown.
From David Plotz, long of Slate and Atlas Obscura, the announcement of a new locally oriented podcast series, called City Cast. In a post on Medium describing the project, Plotz writes:
I’m starting City Cast because I believe the future is local ….
Thanks to the pandemic, a staggering economic crisis, the protest movement against police violence and systemic racism, and well, just 2020 in general, America has never needed great local journalism more than it does today ….
Where local news is sparse or feeble, communities suffer: Political activity declines; local businesses weaken; mistrust grows. We become more divided, more insular, and more hopeless. If you live in a community with hollowed-out media, you feel that every day.
Good luck to Plotz and his City Cast colleagues.
For another illustration of an innovative local model, check out Canopy Atlanta, and its inaugural issue on the city’s West End—and this report by Rick Edmonds, of Poynter, about the way three regional papers are trying to expand rather than budget-cut their way to survival.
And, for an economic-development perspective on which accurate local news matters, see a recent installment of The Chung Report, by James Chung, which has had an ongoing focus on development in Chung’s original hometown of Wichita, Kansas. In “Why Transparency Matters,” Chung explores how a medium-sized city like Wichita, with a strong university presence (Wichita State) and a historic role as a center of aerospace technology, can deal with its long-term civic and economic challenges.
Economic recovery after the pandemic: The story of the moment is of accelerating economic and public-health damage from the (disastrously managed) pandemic. The next story will be about the ways families, companies, cities, and regions can begin to recover.
Some of this effort will be national and global in scale. Some will be intensely local. Here are several worthwhile guides:
From the Heartland Forward project, a report on an economic recovery strategy for Northwest Arkansas. Why this part of the country? Heartland Forward’s founders include younger members of the Walton family and, along with the Walton Family Foundation, it has concentrated on economic and civic revival in non-coastal America, notably including the Walmart headquarters area of Northwest Arkansas.
This new report (in PDF here) is largely devoted to both the immediate and the longer-term effects of the pandemic. It also addresses the region’s diversity and racial-justice issues. Historically, this part of the state (which was not part of the antebellum plantation economy) has had a large-majority white population; according to the report, only 2.5 percent of the local population is Black. The report flatly says that to progress, the region must intentionally make itself more welcoming and inclusive:
“It is paramount that the region’s major employers continue to attract and retain diverse talent … In addition, building up diverse populations assists new members to the community feel comfortable and secure, as well as helps to make the existing culture more welcoming to outsiders …. NWA [Northwest Arkansas] should consider ways to make diverse populations feel more welcome in the community …”
Even if you’re not interested in this part of the country, the report is worth noticing as an illustration of how regions with distinctive strengths and limitations can think realistically about their possibilities.
From Jason Segedy, planning director for the city of Akron, two valuable essays on how cities can approach these new rebuilding challenges. One, in The American Conservative, is about how cities can become more “inclusive” even in the face of likely long-term decline. The other, for the Economic Innovation Group, is about how “legacy cities,” of smaller size and yesteryear’s industry, can find a future. He uses the example of another city we’ve written about, Dayton:
There is also a certain level of love for a mid-sized city like Dayton that is often not as present in larger places, where many people might be there for less emotional and more utilitarian economic reasons. This can lead to higher levels of civic engagement and community support. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and the civically-engaged and community-minded can potentially have more of a positive impact, being bigger fish in a smaller pond. “When you really love something, you want to make it better,” says Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy advisor to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
At the same time, the way that the economy has changed over the past four decades has made it far more difficult for these cities to succeed. Consolidation of major industrial corporations has really hurt cities like Akron and Dayton, as these cities first lost thousands of blue-collar production jobs and then ultimately lost most of the white-collar professional jobs that remained.
From Allentown, Pennsylvania, an update on the ongoing redevelopment of the city’s old heavy-manufacturing sites. Several years ago John Tierney wrote about small, modern startups in what was once the Mack Truck plant. (It is now known as the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.) The next industrial site for renovation is a former steel fabrication plant, known as the Metal Works. You can read about its situation here.
From the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a report on how much money state and local governments have already devoted to sustaining small businesses through the pandemic era—but how much more federal help will inevitably be needed. The report (PDF here), by Kennedy Smith, says:
“The relief programs provided by local and state governments have kept hundreds of thousands of small businesses afloat so far and helped them adapt to the surreal commercial environment the pandemic has created. But absent additional and ongoing funding these crucial programs will cease, leaving hundreds of thousands of small businesses at risk of going under in the coming months.”
Small businesses across the country have been through very tough times these past six-plus months. But—as in so many other aspects of pandemic effects—without help, even tougher times may lie ahead. For a previous ILSR report on steps cities can take to sustain their independent businesses, see this.
One of our ongoing threads through the years has been the importance of skilled-trades jobs, as sources of opportunity and offsets to an ever-more-polarized economy. Advanced-manufacturing jobs, work designing and maintaining robotic systems, jobs in aerospace and health care and advanced agriculture—almost all of these have had more job openings than applicants in recent years, and many do not require a four-year college diploma. NPR has a new segment on this trend, and the importance of apprenticeships. You can read its report by Adedayo Akala and listen to the broadcast here.
Cityscape: I very much enjoyed this map of fall foliage in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where we have spent a lot of time. Check it out. Sample shot below.
A year ago, I published a piece in the print magazine about that long-standing object of American fascination, the Roman Empire. Usually, and usefully, Americans have over the centuries looked to Rome for guidance on how their nation could avoid the predictable slide from republic to empire to conquest and dissolution. My favorite in this genre is the wonderful 2007 book Are We Rome?, by my friend (and Atlantic colleague) Cullen Murphy.
But for last year’s piece I discussed some other books, arguing that what happened to Rome after the fall of the Western empire is what Americans should be studying. Especially in this era when central government—leadership on the imperial scale, you might say—was faltering, and when our counterparts to the Roman provinces (that is, our cities and states and regions) were by comparison so much more practical-minded and functional.
My friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, wrote a response that highlighted some additional areas of useful comparison between the America of our time and the Rome of yesteryear. Now he is back with an extension of his argument. He calls this dispatch “From Sulla to Sullen: What the Fall of the Roman Republic Tells Us About Where Trump Is Taking Us.” I think it is instructive and worth reading, and with his permission I quote it below.
Schnurer began by directing attention away from the end of the empire, and instead to:
… the approaching decline of the Roman Republic, a half-millennium earlier. As I wrote last year, “the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of ‘the greater good’ by what we’d call ‘special interests,’ the turn toward political violence” all looked “a lot like the present moment to me.” I was thinking of the period dominated by the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers—a tag-team somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren —roughly a century before the Republic’s ultimate fall into dictatorship.
I hardly expected then that within about half a year, Donald Trump would manage to fast-forward the country through half acentury of Roman history, to the doorstep of the Civil Wars that destroyed what little was left of Republican Rome.
Of course, no historical analogy is exact. The collapse of the Republic was brought on by a combination of structural flaws in its politics and governance, and the self-serving ambitions of ruthless individuals that exploited them. While the causes were many, inter-related, and complex, at their root was a system that defied any notion of the common good and was devoid of political means to resolve rather than exacerbate division.
The Republic was the creation of a tight-knit oligarchy that had overthrown the preceding monarchy and, as a result, held a deep-seated determination never again to allow any one individual to accumulate so much power as to overawe all others.
The solution was not so much a separation of powers, as we conceive of it—officials simultaneously played executive, legislative and even judicial roles—as a vast multiplicity of individuals who could hold their posts only once, and for only a year. But this was no “citizen’s republic”: A small coterie of privileged families held almost all these offices and voting was severely limited.
Moreover, the term republic—from the Latin for “a thing of the public”—was meant to distinguish it from a monarchy, which was essentially the personal property of the ruler in which other people simply happened to live. But the Roman Republic was more like what we might think of as a “publicly held corporation” and, essentially, treated as private property. Officials used public office to profit personally and directly (and openly).
Of course, it takes money to make money, so only the very wealthy could afford to pursue these rewards because, along the way, they were expected personally to pay for the lavish spectacles, such as the famous gladiatorial games, that sated the public, as well as major public works and public building projects. The Roman state, in short, while ostensibly “public,” had long since been thoroughly privatized.
This state was essentially an increasingly imperial business enterprise, in the guise of a government. The expanding conquests, which were basically run as profit centers, undercut the working populations in the city through a growing influx of slave labor, and drove rural residents off their land through collapsing agricultural prices due to burgeoning grain imports—the automation and offshoring of their day.
These developments nonetheless personally benefited the wealthy Senatorial and governing elite that wielded government power increasingly for the sole private benefit of its members. This led to spiraling social tensions that, when they flared into violence, were resolved through grudging concessions rather than fundamental—and democratizing—changes.
The “radical” Warren-esque reforms of the Gracchis, who themselves were highly patrician, arguably aimed to save their own class from themselves as much as saving the Republic, by creating economic safety valves not unlike the patrician Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal at the depths of the Great Depression. The elites were too selfish, or shortsighted, or both, to see the wisdom—resulting in a violent uprising of the dispossessed known as “the Social War.” Conceptions of a greater good shared broadly amongst a frontier people who had thrown off their king, and came together especially in times of external threat, had long since melted away before the pursuit of personal wealth and power. Politics could no longer bridge the divides, because the threat did not come from without: The enemy was the other within.
In this res public largely eviscerated of any sense of the “public,” politics and government increasingly degenerated further into the personal. Wealthy politicians vied for, and alternated in power, with the support of their own personal parties, armed factions, and the communications media of the day (Julius Caesar, with his Commentaries on his subjugation of Gaul, was a master of this). By a half-century after the Gracchis’ reforms were beaten back, extremely different visions of governing structure, social issues, and economics eventually confronted each other for power in the form of essentially personalized states built largely around either Gaius Marius or Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
And that might be where we find ourselves today. While the political parallels are far from perfect, Marius, hardly a blameless figure, personified the cause of the populares—what we might think of as more-or-less progressive, advocating for an expanded democracy and economic redistribution. Sulla, a patrician who indulged a fairly libertine, sometimes vulgar, lifestyle even throughout his several marriages, was nonetheless the champion of the economic, social and political conservatives, prevailed and eventually became dictator.
While Roman politics had long been a nasty affair, Sulla was the first to institutionalize “proscription”—the practice of declaring your opponents “enemies of the state” and thereby licensing open-hunting season on them. He also became the first ever to violate perhaps the most deeply held norm of the Republic’s unwritten constitution—that no general was ever to lead armed forces across the sacred boundary, the pomerium, of Rome itself—which set the precedent for Julius Caesar’s later, and more famous, crossing of the Rubicon that all but marked the end of the Republic, and Rome’s imperfect democracy, for good.
Now, within the last month, President Trump has sent armed forces into American cities—but not the regular armed forces, as he has mooted in the past. He didn’t call up the National Guard, as presidents normally do when responding to emergencies or civil unrest: With military leaders and some troops themselves publicly expressing discomfort after their use against peaceful protests in Washington, DC, Trump needed to find forces more personally loyal to himself—and he did so in the Customs and Border Patrol—outside any existing branch of the military, responding directly to his agenda, arguably beyond his constitutional authority, and targeting dissent ...
But, as is often the case with Trump, creation of this new praetorian guard can alternatively be understood as essentially a business, rather than an ideological, development—simply a further, if more disturbing, extension of his privatization and personalization of the federal government. The fact that this new model army displays no government agency’s insignia on its personnel or vehicles—relying instead on widely available camouflage rather than government uniforms—means that private militias and vigilantes can easily join forces with it, or even take actions on their own, indistinguishable from these new-fangled government irregulars. As I predicted when Trump first took office, the distinction between public and private sectors is melting away before our very eyes even as to the deployment of legitimate force that, ever since the great sociologist Max Weber, has been seen as the defining element of the state.
Many have expressed concerns for some time that Trump would attempt to remain in office if he were defeated, and might rally armed militias to his cause (I’ve raised this concern myself since the night Trump was elected) … But even if he does leave, the likely Trump post-presidency that fits best with his personality and history—not to mention that of the Romans—may be even more troubling and dangerous.
Trump, if he were to lose, might well leave the White House—he never liked the building to begin with, and doesn’t like the actual work of the presidency—but never concede that he lost. He might not be the real President anymore … but he could play one on TV. If he continued to insist that he were the actual, legitimate President of the United States, there can be little doubt that tens of millions of Americans would believe him. And unlike your average crank, Trump has the resources and ability to turn this into a 24/7 TV reality program through his own television network, even further to the right and more reliably sycophantic than Fox—which he reportedly was considering launching had he not, unexpectedly, won the 2016 election.
Imagine an alternative President, with at least as much media reach as the one actually in the White House, with an unshakably devoted following of perhaps as much as one-third of the country, and perhaps even his own private armed forces—Sulla with a TV station funded by his fellow reactionary patricians, with his own camo-clad stormtroopers picking up and disappearing populare protestors in unmarked vans—and the present looks even more like the late Republic than when I wrote about this less than a year ago. If this occurs, the country would descend into dueling polities, dueling realities, and dueling war zones.
Of course, there are always alternatives: As dysfunctional as the Republic had become, Rome didn’t necessarily need a Caesar. But it did need a modernization of its pre-imperial governance technology—a standing bureaucracy and a streamlined executive to carry out the legislative will would have improved on the existing multi-headed oligarchy at least as well as the succession of terrible emperors did. And a peaceful mechanism for resolving the increasingly disparate interests of Rome’s increasingly disparate and unwieldy empire—broadened and meaningful democracy, for instance, along with progressive economic policies and perhaps a Plebeian Lives Matter movement—might have averted a half-millennium of dictatorship dominated not by orderly succession but factional assassinations and coups until even the Empire eventually conceded it couldn’t manage the job and simply partitioned itself.
We face similar choices today. History isn’t destiny. But it is a warning.
This note is to kick off a resumed set of chronicles in the “Our Towns” series, after time away for a long Atlantic project on the origins of this era’s public-health and economic disaster.
The results of that project are here: “Three Weeks That Changed Everything.” If you’re wondering, the three weeks I have in mind are: January 1, 2020—when first mentions of an outbreak of a new “pneumonia type disease” in central China would have appeared in the CIA-produced “President’s Daily Brief,” at the White House, which in normal governing circumstances would have triggered the beginnings of a coordinated federal response—through January 22, when the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 turned up in the United States. I argue that at the start of that time, it might have been possible to contain the disease near its point of origin, before it became a global disaster. By the end of that time, the U.S. had made fateful decisions that put us on our current catastrophic path.
In a bleak way, the past few months have underscored a message Deb Fallows and I have been discussing for years: At a time of federal-government paralysis and worse, the functionality and cohesion at many points in local- and regional-level America have been the main source of resilience.
I am careful to say “at many points” rather than “everywhere,” because some governors, and a handful of mayors, have followed the disastrous federal example of treating the pandemic as another front in the national-politics war, rather than as public-health emergency. But most governors (of both parties), plus an overwhelming majority of mayors (whose offices are usually not strongly partisan), and a larger and larger share of corporate, private, and non-profit organizations have offered such traction, practical-mindedness, and civic spirit as the nation can display at the moment.
Of course, these dispersed efforts are not enough, in coping with a disaster of this scale. If national governance fails, the whole nation suffers—as does the world, which in previous disease crises had relied on the U.S. to take the lead (again, as my Atlantic piece argued). But local, statewide, regional, and private/NGOs are what we have work with—and learn from, and expand—right now.
To kick things off today, three developments that shed light on how the parts of America that still work can be applied to the parts now so badly failing.
I know, I know: Another commission report, with another lofty title, from another worthy institution, grappling with another of our biggest public challenges. But this one is different and is worth paying attention to. (For the record: I saw an early version of the report but had nothing to do with its preparation or contents. The web version of the report is on the Academy’s site here, and a free downloadable PDF is here.)
The report’s diagnosis of America’s civic, cultural, and governing problems will be recognizable to most readers. The real payoff is the recommendations. There are 31 of them, in six categories, and they’re both impressively ambitious and surprisingly practical-minded, which means that—in theory—they are achievable.
For instance, the sweep of the ideas involves proposals as consequential (and logical) as changing the Supreme Court to fixed 18-year terms for justices, with one nomination every two years; or switching to ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections, to avoid third-party “spoiler” results; or adopting the Australian model in which voting in federal elections is an expectation-of-citizenship, like showing up for jury duty. Significant as such changes might be, only one of the 31 proposals would require amending the Constitution—all the rest could be done by Congress or state legislatures, or would require no legal changes at all. The one exception is this—essentially, correcting the Supreme Court’s ruinous Citizens United ruling from 2010:
RECOMMENDATION 1.5 Amend the Constitution to authorize the regulation of election contributions and spending to eliminate undue influence of money in our political system, and to protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, political participation, and meaningful representation in government.
There’s a lot more in the report, not all of which I agree with, but the vast majority of which would make America more workable at all levels of governance. Another example: stronger incentives to encourage a year of national service. And allowing states to create multi-member congressional districts, if in so doing they could reduce gerrymandering and ideologically “safe” seats.
Congratulations to the three directors of the project, Danielle Allen, Stephen Heintz, and Eric Liu, and to their colleagues who held meetings and citizen-hearings all around the country in coming up with their recommendations. This should be one of the roadmaps for digging out of the current rubble. For more on the fixed-term Supreme Court proposal, see a note* at the end of this item.
Also: If you’re looking for a wry, quickly readable, yet informed and edgy discussion of the same topic, I highly recommend Democracy In One Book or Less, by David Litt. Readers of Litt’s previous book, Thanks, Obama, will need little prodding to get his new work. Litt was a young White House speechwriter for Barack Obama, and that previous book, published in 2017, was one of the funnier and more self-aware entries in the special niche-literary category of speechwriters’ memoirs. His new book is not exactly like Schoolhouse Rock, the corny-but-informative ’70s-era video series on how democracy works, including such classics as “I’m Just a Bill.” But it’s in the same spirit: whimsy and pop culture, enlisted toward the end of knowledge. Here’s the Washington Post review of Litt’s book. Read it!
And in the same “bonus reading tips” spirit, please check out Joe Mathews, of Zócalo Public Square, on the useful thought experiment of California declaring independence (it won’t happen, but it’s clarifying to think about); and Quint Studer, a successful businessman who has become a civic leader in Pensacola, Florida, on how to broaden understanding of what it takes for democracies to survive.
2) Right to Start, from the Right to Start Fund and Victor Hwang:
Victor Hwang, originally trained as a lawyer, is a longtime tech entrepreneur and startup evangelist. I came to know him in his years with the entrepreneur-minded Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City. While there he emphasized the foundation’s findings that a huge share of America’s net job growth comes from brand-new, startup firms. Bigger firms obviously employ more people, but as time goes on they have little net job creation.
The graph below, produced by the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates the pattern: In most recent years, long-established firms (gray line) either shed more jobs than they create, or add only modest numbers overall. By contrast, new firms (blue line) have added one to two million jobs nearly every year. The point is obvious once you think about it: Since startup firms, by definition, have no existing jobs to lose, every job they create is a net plus. But Hwang and his Kauffman colleagues have long emphasized a less obvious implication: that if an economy wants new jobs, it needs to foster the creation of new firms.
Now Hwang has devoted himself full-time to policies at the national, state, and local level that will make it easier rather than harder to start a small business, a small factory, even (someday) a small restaurant. Obviously this is all the more important now, as the small businesses that have been so crucial in city-by-city revival (as I described here) have come under new, intense pressure.
At Kauffman, Hwang helped write the “America’s New Business Plan” policy guideline, which begins this way:
America’s future depends on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs not only embody the American spirit, they also power our economy. The new businesses they start account for nearly all net new job creation… [Yet] starting and building a business has become harder and rarer in most of America….
America remains a nation with vivid entrepreneurial dreams. More than 60% of Americans have a dream business in mind they would love to create, and more than 40% would quit their job and start a business in the next six months if they had the tools and resources they needed...
There is a hole at the center of our economic discussion where hope should be.
Victor Hwang and his colleagues wrote that, and the rest of the manifesto, before the pandemic upended everything. But I think their recommendations for state legislators and regulators (here), for local officials and policy makers (here), and for federal candidates and office-holders (here) are worth your time and attention.
Update: Victor Hwang’s organization has just released a video from Tulsa, about “The Legacy of Black Wall Street” there. The reference is of course to the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, whose centennial the city is planning to observe in appropriate ways next year.
3) The Career Certificates Program, from Grow with Google:
Back at the dawn of time, I wrote an Atlantic cover story called “The Case Against Credentialism.” It argued that the American higher-education system and associated “meritocracy” had less and less to do with the abilities that should enable people of different backgrounds to get ahead, or with the professional competence that society needed.
That is: Parents understood that getting children into the right preschool helped them get into the right prep school, which helped them get the right test scores, which helped them get into the right college, which helped them … in some general way. (Mainly by getting to the top rather than the bottom of an unequal economy.) But as a society looked at the twin goals of maximizing opportunity and rewarding real performance, it made less and less sense to enable a system that gives such an edge to those who start out with advantages.
This is a point many people recognize in principle, though it is hard to implement in practice. It’s a reason Deb and I have given such emphasis to community colleges over the years, for instance here (about Kansas and Michigan) and here (about Ohio). Community colleges matter because they are the part of the U.S. educational system most committed to matching people who need opportunities with the opportunities this era has opened up.
The high-tech industry is not often seen as a vehicle of rapid class mobility within the United States. For people from around the world, yes! Less so for people without financial or educational advantages inside the U.S.
In the past few years, Deb and I have often referred to initiatives by Grow With Google, a non-profit arm of Google started in 2017 and devoted to applying advanced tech tools to job-search, civic resilience, and local-startup ends. (For the record: Grow With Google was an underwriter for some of our travel and reporting last year. Deb and I had known, liked, and collaborated with members of this organization in the time well before their business relationship with the Atlantic—and have stayed in touch with them thereafter.)
This past week Grow With Google announced a new program to offer transferrable certificates, in a variety of tech-related fields. The crucial aspect here is the standardization and nationwide (or international) transferability of these credentials. The training may be under Google’s auspices, but the goal is a credential that people can use to show their proficiency when applying for jobs elsewhere.
“Everyone says ‘Bachelor’s degree or equivalent’ in job listings,” Lisa Gevelber, VP of Global Marketing and a leading figure in Grow With Google, told me last week. “But there was no standard definition of what that ‘equivalent’ is.” Five years ago I wrote about an effort in San Bernardino, California, to provide a standardized, transferrable credential in machine-tool and similar skills. Grow With Google is trying to do that on a much broader scale, in an array of skills that have much faster-than-average growth in job availability, and much higher-than-average wages. In addition to tech-related fields like IT support, the certificates cover project-management and data-analytics skills that can be applied in a range of industries.
“A college degree is just out of reach for lots of folks, but a great job doesn’t have to be,” Gevelber told me. “People want to get started, but they don’t know what would be a specific, realistic pathway.” The new certification program, operated in partnership with 100 community colleges around the country (and eventually with “career technical” programs at many high schools), intends to offer the same kind of specific “here’s the next step” certification that people intending to be lawyers have with the LSAT and law degrees, or that aspiring pilots have with FAA certifications. The program also offers its students extensive free “soft skill” training—practice in writing resumes, preparing for job interviews, and generally filling in the background that people from more advantaged backgrounds would already have. Students in these programs pay $49 per month to Coursera, which hosts them. Lisa Gevelber said that students typically finish in three to six months, at a total cost of $150 to $300—and that Google is funding 100,000 scholarships, in addition to other reduced-cost options.
Standardized degrees for professional-class America—the BA, the PhD, the law and medical and related credentials—have been indispensable tools of mobility and opportunity for many people. Standardized and portable credentials for the rest of America are also important, which is why I think this initiative deserves notice.
The main theme of my pandemic article was that people have thought hard about “gray rhino” challenges—problems that, unlike “black swans,” are foreseeable and inevitable, but whose timing is unknown. In earlier administrations, they had come up with plans that could have saved us incalculable suffering, cost, and woe.
Something similar is true of these civic and economic plans. People have thought about this! We should listen to them.
* Let me make an additional news-sensitive point about the Supreme Court reform proposal, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
There was a time when selecting nominees as Justices was not a tontine-style longevity-guessing contest. In 1965, while still in his mid-50s, Arthur Goldberg stepped down from the Court to become Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations. For Goldberg it turned out to be a very poor career choice, but it illustrated an era when Justices didn’t think they had to hold onto a seat as long as they breathed. Similarly, David Souter stepped down in 2009, before he turned age 70. And he is still going strong.
Now nominees are sought as young as possible, to hang on as long as plausible—adding a random hand-of-fate factor to what is supposed to be democratic governance. Fixed 18-year-terms, with each president expecting a nomination every two years, would reduce the gruesome medical-report aspect of today’s jurisprudence.
Here is the news angle: If a Supreme Court vacancy should occur between now and next January 20, Mitch McConnell has said that he might attempt to ram through a new appointment and confirmation in that time, even after stonewalling Merrick Garland’s nomination during Barack Obama’s final year. If this happens, and he does so, under current rules the Democrats would not be able to stop him. But they should make their planned response clear: Do this, and when we’re next in control, we’ll expand the size of the Court and confirm several new appointees—which might not have been justified when FDR attempted it, but would be now. More on this as news dictates.
Most artists were working at the edge. They seemed somehow different from the rest of us who color inside the lines. That is part of why I wanted to return during the pandemic to artists I have met and known, to see how they are taking in this terrible new life and how they are responding through their craft and work. What were they saying and what were they doing?
I talked first by phone with Richelle Gribble, whom I had first met during her artist-in-residency in Eastport, Maine. Richelle is a serial artist-in-residence, having traveled for weeks or months at a time to places from the Arctic Circle to Wyoming to Berkeley. She is at home near LA now, working out of her kitchen. Her workspace, the counter and a pullout table next to it, competes with normal kitchen activities, and the result, Richelle described, is a mixture of paint tubes and tomatoes.
Richelle works on both big pieces and little pieces, which is convenient now. In Eastport, she had a two-room storefront studio, where she could lay out collections of local flora and fauna, and compose really big pieces. Townspeople strolling the sidewalks would regularly stop by the studio to see what she was up to, which was a feature of her residency. Now the only person who drops into her workspace is her partner, who, she says, spends his days on calls and zooms.
When I first met Richelle, her muse was everything around Eastport: the shoreline, the wildlife, and the nature around her. Now, she says, she is attuned to life closer in. In a project she calls Quarantine Life, she posts online a daily drawing of something she has just noticed, or experienced, or heard about, or felt. You’ll see shopping receipts, a discarded face mask on the sidewalk, sweet potatoes that are growing sprouts, a coronavirus rendering, and the well-organized, color-coded inside of her closet. Her goal is to track the days, she said, and her stack of drawings is growing taller and taller.
She is also participating in a global crowd-sourced project that includes not only artists, but others who are journalists, physicians, ecologists, songwriters, CEOs, astronauts, and more. It’s called Great Pause Project.
The plan is ambitious: Anyone in the world is invited to share written responses and photos on an online platform, to document and archive the pandemic experience. The hope is to learn lessons and gain insights that might otherwise be lost, and to create a tangible, collaborative record to craft the story of this time.
Richelle describes one of the crowd-sourced initiatives, the Window Effect, where people contribute photographs taken from their windows. The impressions evoke everything from weather checks to glimpses through prison bars to effective shields against the virus to daydreaming. And another, the COVID-19 Photo Diary, is a photograph collection a bit farther beyond the glass windows, out into the neighborhoods.
Great Pause Project also includes a crowd-sourced written survey, called the echo-location survey, which will build a record about life during the pandemic: People answer questions about how they are feeling, how they have changed, what they notice about their environment, how they see the future, and what lessons they take from living this experience.
Richelle has long explored the idea of interconnectedness in the world through her art. She sees the pandemic era as a chance to have a broader reach by working very collaboratively with others. “If I share art just within my own circle” she says, “my art reaches a few people.” But if it becomes part of something bigger, she explains, “Others will say: Oh yeah, that’s what a global pause felt like or that’s what the COVID experience was.”
I talked with Barbara Liotta, who is an artist in Washington, DC and for the record, a longtime friend. For decades now, she and I have talked about everything: children, husbands, families, her art, my writing, travel, swimming, books, and lots of other things. I’ve traipsed around rock quarries with her to source stones for her sculptures, watched her suspend a 57-foot net panel over the side of an 11-story building, and celebrated her openings. She has visited us on our faraway journeys, flown in our little plane, gone to my author events and had parties for them. We prop each other up. So naturally, I turned to Barbara to help me see her artist’s sense of life during this time.
Barbara has a studio behind her house; it used to be a garage, with a concrete floor and high enough ceiling to hang her work. At the beginning, she told me, the lockdown made her feel like a character in a 1940s British movie. We should “buck up and take care of each other and confront this thing by being good community members,” she said. While most of us were cleaning out attics or basements, she was sorting and arranging her enormous collection of formidable, heavy shards, chunks, and slabs. Serendipitously, she came across what she described as “beautiful, gold, sun-drenched granites” and she created a series of warm sun pieces to will in a different mood.
Weeks passed, and as the pandemic with its tragic and awful state came to dominate everything, her work reflected the change. She told me. “As an artist, I can’t not address it, but the immensity of the shift requires that I let it sink in and allow my vision to mature.” The result? “I’ve been drawing and proposing a very dark, dark piece of exploded columns and shattered rock.”
Like for the rest of us, who seek some lightness or humor anywhere these days, one bright moment came on a video call with her son, an emergency room doctor in San Diego, and his new wife, as she was directing them how to install a small hanging sculpture she had shipped them. “A little farther back, off to the right, now left a bit,” she narrated the smartphone-enabled installation process. I saw this as a simple, lighthearted moment. Barbara saw an interpretation: “Art means civilization means hope,” she wrote me, “like an equation.”
Like many other artists and many of the rest of us, her work has been sidelined from the public. An exhibit at the Gallery at MASS MoCA hangs inside for no one to see it. A symposium was canceled. Future events are falling by the wayside. While many artists have shifted online—musicians, singers, actors, performing artists—Barbara says that option doesn’t work for her. Her art is three-dimensional, and being present helps experience it. “The trouble with my work now is that it needs a venue,” she concluded, with the pain of the sculptor’s version of If a tree falls in the forest …. “It is my work, but my work is not going anywhere. It doesn’t count if no one sees it.”
I also talked with Andrew Simonet, who cofounded and directed Headlong Dance Theater in Philadelphia for 20 years. He left that role seven years ago and pivoted to write young adult novels. He also founded an incubator called Artists U to help artists take practical steps to create a sustainable life as an artist. When I talked to him, Andrew was in Vermont, where he decamped from Philadelphia with his family.
We talked about the work ethic of artists and how it syncs with this moment of pandemic. He explained something I hadn’t thought about before, but it made perfect sense when I heard him say it. Artists, he said, are “very comfortable with uncertainty. We push away from what we know.” And this way of living and working, Andrew Simonet argued, should be encouraging to artists who may need encouragement right now for how to meet the pandemic and push on to make their art.
As artists, he declared, “This is what we train for.”
The former president’s message at his Arizona rally was as clear as it was dishonest: He didn’t lose to Joe Biden in 2020, and he’ll spend the next year working to elect Republicans who agree.
FLORENCE, Ariz.—Tonight, deep in the Arizona desert, thousands of people chanted for Donald Trump. They had braved the wind for hours—some waited the entire day—just to get a glimpse of the defeated former president. And when he finally appeared on stage, as Lee Greenwood played from the loudspeakers, the crowd roared as though Trump were still the commander in chief. To many of them, he is.
“I ran twice and we won twice,” Trump told his fans. “This crowd is a massive symbol of what took place, because people are hungry for the truth. They want their country back.”
Tonight’s rally was Trump’s first public event since July. On paper, the gathering was meant as his response to the anniversary of January 6, as well as an unofficial kickoff for his efforts to support Republicans in the midterm elections. But the event also served as the soft launch of Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign. Although he didn’t say the words, the former president seems poised to run in two years—“Make America great again again … again,” he joked to the crowd—and tonight, his message was as clear as it was dishonest: He didn’t lose to Joe Biden in 2020, and he’ll spend the next year working to elect Republicans who agree.
Right now, there is a hole in my living room. It was not there last week. We’ve tried to cover it up, but nothing seems to work. Rearranging the furniture somehow only makes the hole grow. The space, which once radiated a hopeful glow, now feels hollow. When I stare at this hole, I begin to feel as if a light has gone out in the world. Actually, not just one, many. And that’s because they have.
I am, of course, talking about my Christmas tree (RIP).
If you live in one of the 94 million homes or apartments that purchased or displayed a tree this holiday season, then maybe you feel the same melancholy that I do now. It’s grim out there. Two weeks ago, my street was a Griswoldian wonderland with twinkling lights silhouetting the eaves of my neighbors’ houses and robust-looking conifers standing proudly in their windows. Now my street is an evergreen graveyard with damp, sickly looking pines discarded by the side of the road, half buried in the driven slush.
I thought I was done dating. But after moving across the country, I had to start again—this time, in search of platonic love.
Thirty-seven minutes after sitting down to lunch, Francesca and I hugged goodbye in a strip-mall parking lot. We were both fairly certain, I think, that we would not be seeing each other again. The high-school classmate of a friend’s friend’s husband, she’d been such a promising friendship prospect: She was a professional violinist and fellow New Yorker who was writing her dissertation on pollen. But I was awkward, smiling too much and saying things like “That’s so funny” in lieu of actual laughter, while Francesca (not her real name) was overworked and seemed full of derision for Bozeman, Montana, the town to which I had just moved, and from which she and her husband were determined to flee.
The top player in men’s tennis is yet another anti-vaccine athlete who’d rather create chaos than get a shot.
After a dramatic weeklong fight with the world’s top men’s tennis player, Australia’s immigration authorities wisely decided to revoke Novak Djokovic’s visa a second time because he flouted the country’s COVID-19 policies. Although the Australian authorities and tennis officials aren’t blameless, this is a huge, self-inflicted public-relations crisis for Djokovic that has smeared his legacy.
SNL’s inaugural episode of 2022 turned to dark, and often awkward, absurdity to explain our exasperating moment.
Saturday Night Live’s first episode of 2022 attempted to make up for the strange, empty show that ended 2021 amid the rise of the coronavirus’s Omicron variant. The cast was back, the masked audience was back, and the show, as they say, went on. But it couldn’t escape the world outside of 30 Rock’s doors.
This season has thus far blended thin political fare with dour-noted escapism, as though the pleasure of putting on a live show is more about continually agitating a bruise than finding true comedic relief. Like so many of its viewers, SNL has been waiting to turn a corner, to move past a scenario with little to laugh about. Last night’s episode felt like one long exasperated sigh. As James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden wretchedly joked in the opening presidential address, “People got vaccinated and the pandemic got worse.”
Climate change is a tough subject for any film, let alone a satire.
Adam McKay’s disaster satire Don’t Look Up is many things at once: a parable of our distracted society, a primal scream of a warning, and a broad comedy from the writer/director of Anchorman. Such a delicate balance has made the star-studded Netflix film a polarizing movie.
Critics, audiences, and activists have both savaged and praised the movie, and the backlash has highlighted the difficulty of conveying an urgent message with comedy. Has political satire lost its power? Or has reality become so absurd that it’s now beyond parody?
That challenge was evident in the making of Don’t Look Up. As McKay told David Sims, he wrote the story about a planet-killing comet (and our society’s inability to act collectively to stop it) as a climate-change metaphor. But after the script was done, production shut down for the pandemic and he watched the follies of a real-life disaster surpass his fictional one.
Today’s norms of responsiveness are ridiculous. We shouldn’t apologize for failing to meet them.
At first, being reachable all the time felt good. To professionals who started using BlackBerries 20 years ago to conduct business on the go, it registered as a superpower. “They felt like masters of the universe,” Melissa Mazmanian, an informatics professor at UC Irvine who studied the devices’ uptake in the early 2000s, told me. But as more people got mobile devices, responding to messages anytime became the norm among co-workers as well as friends and loved ones. The superpower morphed into an obligation.
This is an evolution that Mazmanian refers to as the “spiral of expectations.” When communication technology makes a new thing (like responding on the go) possible, doing that thing can be a way for people to signal how dedicated they are as workers or family members—and, crucially, not doing that thing can suggest that they aren’t dedicated enough. Now when people feel they haven’t responded sufficiently quickly, they think they owe their correspondent an apology.
In Disney’s latest blockbuster, Encanto, a magical family called the Madrigals have escaped the violence and chaos of their homeland by crossing a river into an enchanted paradise that endows each with wondrous gifts that they use to protect and enhance their community. As the generations go by, however, the magic of the new world starts to fade and the family buckles under the pressure of their responsibilities while struggling to maintain the illusion that everything is fine. One grandchild, we learn, has no gift at all; another worries that she cannot keep up the appearance of perfection that is crushing her from the inside out; while another, still, panics that she is losing her superhuman strength. Luisa, the strong one, sings out her fears:
Early cringe culture was about empathy and secondhand embarrassment. Today, being “cringe” is a serious infraction.
Take a tweet from the week after the Capitol riot in January 2021: “A Liberal insurrection would have looked very different. We would have escorted the original Broadway cast of Hamilton into the galleries. They would softly sing … as members of the GOP spewed their lies.” This was apparently intended as satire of a certain type of extremely online and cringe-inducing liberal smugness, but it came off as the thing itself and then produced more of the same. “I’ve literally been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack at work for days now,” wrote one woman. “This is EXACTLY what would’ve happened. ALL the theater kids everywhere,” wrote another.
Then the joke became real. Last week, as part of a series of public events marking one year since the January 6 riot, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduced a prerecorded performance by the cast of Hamilton, singing “Dear Theodosia.” Pelosi read aloud from the song’s lyrics: “We’ll make it right for you. If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you; we’ll give the world to you.” There was no need to debate whether this was cringe (which is now an adjective, as well as a noun and verb), because cringe is a you-know-it-when-you-see-it type of thing. And these days, you can seeiteverywhere.
Recently I met the astronomer Pascal Oesch, an assistant professor at the University of Geneva. Professor Oesch and his colleagues share the distinction of having discovered the most distant known object, a small galaxy called GNz-11. That galaxy is so far away that its light had to travel for 13 billion years to get from there to here. I asked Professor Oesch if he felt personally connected to this tiny smudge on his computer screen. Does this faint blob feel like part of nature, part of the same world of Keats and Goethe and Emerson, where “vines that round the thatch-eves run; to bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees”?
Oesch answered that he looks at such distant smudges every day. Sure, they’re part of the universe, he said. But consider the abstraction (thought I). A few exhausted photons of light from GNz-11 dropped on a photoelectric detector aboard a satellite orbiting Earth, produced a tiny electrical current that was translated into 0s and 1s, which were beamed to Earth in a radio wave. That information was then processed in data centers in New Mexico and Maryland and eventually landed on Professor Oesch’s computer screen in Geneva. These days, professional astronomers rarely look at the sky through the lens of a telescope. They sit at computer screens.