a different explanation of dispiriting political new coverage and debate

We are used to political news that is almost all about politicians criticizing each other, battling in the trenches over budgets and appointments, responding to crises, and positioning themselves for election or re-election.

These forms of politics are inevitable, but I don’t think it’s widely recognized how little governance actually takes place in our time. In some ways, petty debate has filled a vacuum left by a lack of real law-making, if that means getting elected with compelling platforms and then turning them into legislation.

Teaching a (virtual) classroom of undergrads this week, I realized that I could only think of four bills passed during my students’ two decades of life that have really altered the social contract. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001) launched 19 years of war. The USA PATRIOT Act (also 2001) changed law enforcement and surveillance. No Child Left Behind (2002) made measurement and testing more important in k-12 education, although it was actually a set of amendments to the basic framework of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, some of which were relaxed again in 2015. And the Affordable Care Act of 2010 extended access to health insurance, albeit less dramatically than Medicare or Medicaid (1965).

Compare that list with what Congress passed (and the president signed) during the year 1965.

For the first few months of that year, Congress was presumably busy with committee work and markups. In April, it passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, for the first time getting the federal government involved with funding education and regulating schools in return for those funds. In July, Congress began requiring health labels on cigarette packages and regulating tobacco ads. Three days later, Congress established Medicare and Medicaid and entitled millions of people to government-funded healthcare.

August started with the Voting Rights Act, which arguably made the US into a democracy at last. Four days later, Congress established HUD and got heavily involved with urban development. Under the Public Works and Economic Development Act, also passed in August, Congress appropriated money for urban development.

September saw the founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, meaning regular federal involvement in culture. (The NEH also created the important national network of state humanities councils.)

October 1965 started with a law (the Hart-Celler Act) that permanently transformed the demographics of the United States by opening the country to mass immigration without the national quotas that had favored Europe. That was a big deal, but Congress also spent October passing major legislation against heart disease, cancer, and stroke; began to regulate automotive emissions; and passed the Highway Beautification Act, which is one reason our public roads are no longer lined with litter.

The year 1965 ended with the passage of the Higher Education Act, still the framework for federal involvement in college education; and the Vocational Rehabilitation Act.

I have chosen 1965 because it was a banner year, but I was tempted to mention 1964 instead. That was the year of the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Food Stamps, and the congressional authorization for Vietnam, among other bills. Imagine the TV news or newspaper headlines when every few weeks brought a transformative law.

The point is not that these laws were all good–their record is mixed and debatable. Nor that they were liberal; 1981-4 saw significant lawmaking in a conservative direction. The point is that they were highly consequential acts of governance, enacting new visions of how our country should function. No wonder reporters and voters often focused on substance.

To put it the other way, no wonder that reporters and voters rarely debate substance today. As many important bills have passed in 20 years as used to pass in a single month in the 1960s.

You could argue that we don’t need that pace of change any more, because our social contract is much closer to perfect than it was in 1960. You could argue that the reforms of that era created an administrative behemoth, and the best we can do now is to administer it competently. You could oppose the arrogant social engineering of the Sixties. Or you can decry today’s gridlock and blame it on partisan polarization, inequality, corruption, special interests, incompetence, propaganda, or a lack of civic virtue.

Regardless, I think you would expect an era marked by a lack of landmark legislation to be an era of tawdry politics. The tawdriness may be one reason for the stasis, but I suspect the causal arrow points the other way as well.

Constitutional Rights Foundation Offering Free Student-Driven Civics Webinars!

Friends, I know we are all seeking ways to ensure that our students, even ‘trapped’ at home, get a high quality civics education. Our good friends at the Constitutional Rights Foundation know this as well. They are offering free student driven webinars for elementary, middle, and high school kids that you can have your kids take part in that help them understand public policy, individual rights, and civic life. Check out the information below. I know I am going to try and get my own middle school child to take part! 

We are in this together. Our team is developing new resources in real time to help students keep learning at home.

Upcoming are a series of webinars taught by CRF staff and/or youth for your students (and families) to participate in. Many CRF staff members have teaching backgrounds and we are going to work with our Civic Action Project (CAP) Youth Board led by Sari Kaufman and Casey Sherman (#MarchforOurLives) to present webinars directly to students. We know that kids are missing other kids, so we are excited to have youth teaching youth.

Upcoming Live Student Webinars:

Monday, April 6, 2020 at 10 am Pacific/1 pm Eastern
High School Students
In This Moment in Time: Public Policy and Civic Action 
CRF Sr. Program Director (and high school teacher) Sarah Badawi will facilitate a lesson from CRF’s Civic Action Project focused on public policies in play and analyzing public policy.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020 at 10 am Pacific/1 pm Eastern
Middle School Students
Our Rights & Freedoms: Visitor From Outer Space
This interactive lesson places students in a situation where they must choose which of the Bill of Rights they want to keep and which rights they are willing to give up. This is a great activity to teach students about fundamental rights while strengthening their speaking, listening, and collaborative skills.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at 10 am Pacific/1 pm Eastern
Grades 2-4 Students
My Town and The Three Branches of Government
Members of CRF’s Youth Board will lead a lesson for elementary students as they learn about the three branches of government.


COVID-19 is not a metaphor

A quick search reveals scores of articles by people who, like me, have recently read or re-read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).

Sontag’s thesis is simple: “illness is not a metaphor, and … the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (3). She adds, “The people who have the real disease are also hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil” (85).

I would say: It is wrong to use sick people as assets in arguments, as new reasons for conclusions you already held. If you want to use a disease as a metaphor, ask yourself whether you would make that argument in a sick person’s hearing. If that would be cruel, don’t say it anywhere.

There is no such thing as a fact that is innocent of comparison and evaluation, no “writing degree zero” that lacks metaphor. But we can adopt an ethic of very close attention to known details about our actual fellow human beings, or we can venture into broader speculation

Sontag explores how “Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society [is] corrupt or unjust.” She shows that “to liken a political event or situation to an illness is to impute guilt, to prescribe punishment.” (72) But little actual insight comes from likening a moral or social problem to a disease, or vice versa. “Traditional disease metaphors are principally a way of being vehement” (83).

This is a warning against using the pandemic for rhetorical purposes. I am collecting examples for a short commissioned article of political theory that is mostly an argument against theorizing casually while people are suffering.

Sontag’s main examples are cancer and tuberculosis. She argues that they provided rich (but problematic) material for metaphor because their causes were unknown. Their mysterious etiology gave them rhetorical power. In contrast, everyone always understood that syphilis was an infection transmitted through sex, so it never worked as anything but a crude and direct trope. Since we basically understand COVID-19 already, maybe its rhetorical uses will be limited.

See also: on the moral dangers of cliché; on the proper use of moral clichés; and on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it.

More Palm Beach Created Resources for Civics!

Last week, we shared with you a collection of video lessons for learning civics from home, put together by the excellent folks in Palm Beach using some resources from Civics360. Today, we are happy and grateful to share four more. Each video runs about ten minutes long, give or take a couple of minutes. I’ve included a link back to Civics360 under each video. Thank you, Lori Dool, for giving us a chance to support teachers!

Enlightenment Ideas

Civics360 Module

Impact of Historical Documents

Civics360 Module

Pursuit of Independence

Civics360 Module One
Civics360 Module Two

Articles of Confederation

Civics360 Module

We hope you found these useful, and thank you again to Palm Beach District Schools for sharing them!

Massachusetts tax shortfall: up to $750 million this fiscal year

Declining tax revenues will likely cost our state about $500-$750 million during the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. Over the next five quarters, the loss may reach $3 billion. I believe the total budget for the state is $43 billion, so that would be a 7% reduction–at a time of intense need.

The scale of this problem may not surprise anyone, but it’s important to be able to quantify it as a basis for smart policy. These estimates come from a new brief entitled “Estimating the Shortfall in Massachusetts Tax Revenues,” from the new Center for State Policy Analysis (cSPA) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, where I work.

Trump’s polling bump in perspective

I’ve collected polls of France’s Emmanuel Macron (but this site shows less improvement for him); Italy’s Giuseppe Conte; New York’s Andrew Cuomo; Poland’s Andrzej Duda; and the UK’s Boris Johnson (the Tories now have their best support in the history of British polling). For Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, and Mexico, I am using Morning Consult polls from here. I take Trump’s approval rating from FiveThirtyEight. Countries with strong parliaments and weak executive branch leaders typically do not poll their national leaders often.

The graph below shows how various national populations rate their own leaders’ handling of the pandemic. (It is from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, hence the three Canadian leaders.) Note that Macron is rated worse than Trump on handling the virus but still gets a bigger bounce in approval polls.

ConversationCafe Recording and Resources

Last week NCDD held our first virtual Conversation Cafe session, and we were blown away by the turnout – thank you to the 125+ of you who joined us to learn about how to host Cafes online and participated in one on the call!

The level of interest and enthusiasm was overwhelming, and so we wanted to make sure that anyone who is interested in this simple, open-source model for dialogue has the information and resources to do so! The following is a list of links to new and existing materials that everyone is welcome to utilize:

  • NCDD’s current director Courtney Breese, co-founder Sandy Heierbacher, and Conversation Cafe co-founder Susan Partnow, created a bunch of resources for hosting Conversation Cafes online during this pandemic: http://www.conversationcafe.org/for-hosts/resources-cafes-online/. Resources include a guide for hosts, the mini guide for use in the cafe, topics and questions for cafes, and an instructional on using Zoom for Cafes.
  • Beyond Conversation Cafe, NCDD’s Communications Coordinator Keiva Hummel has helped curate resources for responding to this pandemic. They are available (and can be added to!) over in Google Docs.

The recording of the virtual Conversation Cafe session is available at this link. Please note: the recording includes an overview of Conversation Cafe, the set-up for the cafe, and then the Q&A and wrap-up at the end. It does not include the breakout group conversations. Additionally, numerous resources and lots of information was shared in the chat.

NCDD is excited to see all the enthusiasm for what’s possible. We’ll continue to support these efforts as best we can, particularly by continuing to share resources and events. We’ve created a new Events Calendar to start sharing upcoming events, and a simple form for posting your event.

NCDD can also definitely use your help! If you want to help with social media, blog posts (share your stories of Cafes!), helping to create a stronger community of hosts, or something else you’d like to offer, send Courtney an email at courtney@ncdd.org. We will convene a team if there is enough interest to support Conversation Cafes in this unique moment. If you are not in a position to give your time right now, perhaps you might consider making a contribution to help support Conversation Cafe: www.ncdd.org/donate. NCDD is a small nonprofit and we steward Conversation Cafe without any dedicated funding support, so any and all contributions are greatly appreciated.

We are all juggling a lot right now, no doubt, but it is so heartening to see you, connect with you, and talk about what we can do for our communities during these difficult times. NCDD looks forward to continuing to work with you all!

Commoning as a Pandemic Survival Strategy

The pandemic now sweeping the planet is one of those historic events that will change many basic premises of modern life. Let us act swiftly to deal with the emergencies, but let us also seize the opportunity to think about long-term system change. If there is one thing that the pandemic confirms (in tandem with climate change), it is that our modern economic and political systems must change in some profound ways. And we are the ones who must push that change forward. We've already seen what state officialdom has in mind -- more bailouts for a dysfunctional system. Serious change is not a priority at all.

However, pandemics are hard to ignore. Many ideas once ignored or dismissed by Serious People – commoning, green transition policies, climate action, relocalization, food sovereignty, degrowth, post-capitalist finance, universal basic income, and much else – now don’t seem so crazy. In fact, they are positively common-sensical and compelling.

The pandemic has been horrific, but let's be candid: It has been one of the most effective political agents to disrupt politics-as-usual and validate new, imaginative possibilities.

Many things are now less contestable: Of course our drug-development system should be revamped so that parasitic corporate monopolies cannot prey upon us with high prices, marketable drugs rather than innovation, and disdain for public health needs. Of course our healthcare system should be accessible to everyone because, as the pandemic is showing, individual well-being is deeply entwined with collective health. Of course we must limit our destruction of ecosystems lest we unleash even greater planetary destabilization through viruses, biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline, and more.

In this sense, covid-19 is reacquainting us moderns with some basic human realities that we have denied for too long: 

  • We human beings actually depend on living, biological systems despite our pretentions to have triumphed over nature and its material limits.
  • We human beings are profoundly interdependent on each other despite our presumptions – at the core of modern economics and liberal democracy -- that we are self-sovereign individuals without collective needs. (Margaret Thatcher: "There IS no society, only individuals.")

Notwithstanding these general assumptions of modern life, we humans are discovering that we are in fact programmed to help each other when confronted with disasters. As Rebecca Solnit chronicled in her memorable book A Paradise Built in Hell, earthquakes, hurricanes, and gas explosions spur human beings to self-organize themselves to help each other, often in utterly sublime, beautiful ways. It’s a deeply human instinct.

The early journalism about covid-19 confirms this human impulse. Just as the Occupy movement mobilized to provide essential relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, mutual aid networks are now popping up in neighborhoods around the world, as the New York Times has noted.

The Times cited the great work of Invisible Hands, a network of 1,300 NYC young people who spontaneously peer-organized in three days to deliver groceries to at-risk people who can’t venture out of their homes. The piece also cited this radio segment on mutual aid on Amy Goodman’s show, Democracy Now! 

Check out a number of useful links in the article to other mutual-aid efforts, including a massive Google Doc listing scores of efforts in cities around the US, and a pod mapping toolkit. And check out the Washington Post’s piece on how a website for neighborhood cooperation, Nextdoor, has become a powerful tool for people to help each other through the pandemic.

The mainstream world likes to refer to such peer-assistance as “volunteering” and “altruism.” It is more accurately called commoning because it is more deeply committed and collective in character than individual “do-gooding,” itself a patronizing term. And surprise: it sometimes comes with disagreements that must be resolved – but which can end up strengthening the commons.

A thoughtful piece on the role of anarchism in surviving the pandemic notes that mutual aid “is the decentralized practice of reciprocal care via which participants in a network make sure that everyone gets what they need, so that everyone has reason to be invested in everyone else’s well-being. This is not a matter of tit-for-tat exchange, but rather an interchange of care and resources that creates the sort of redundancy and resilience that can sustain a community through difficult times.”

The vexing question for the moment is whether state power will support mutual aid over the long term (it may be seen as a threat to state authority and markets) -- or whether Trump-style politicians will use this moment of fear to consolidate state control, increase surveillance, and override distributed peer governance.

Another important question for the near-term is:  Can we develop sufficient institutional support for commoning so that it won’t fade away as the red-alert consciousness of the moment dissipates. To that end, I recommend Silke Helfrich’s and my book Free, Fair and Alive You may also want to browse the governance toolkit on CommunityRule.info or look into Sociocracy for All.

*                *               *

Throughout history commoning has always been an essential survival strategy, and so it is in this crisis. When the state, market, or monarchy fail to provide for basic needs, commoners themselves usually step up to devise their own mutual-aid systems.

In so doing, they are illuminating the structural deficiencies of conventional markets and state power. As we have seen, political agendas and profiteering have often been higher priorities than public health or equal treatment, as the $2.2 trillion bailout bill passed by the US Congress suggests. President Trump has been more obsessed with reviving the market and winning re-election than in saving people’s lives. Consider how many corporations are more intent on reaping private economic efficiencies (offshoring medical facemask manufacturing; closing down access to cheap generic drugs) than in allowing collective needs to be met effectively through government or commoning.

Numerous commentators are pointing out how the pandemic is but a preview of coming crises. It's not been mentioned much that covid-19 is partly the result of humans encroaching excessively on natural ecosystems. The UN environment chief Inger Anderson has said that biodiversity and habitat loss are making it easier for pathogens to jump from “the wild” to humans.

And ecologist Stephan Harding has a wonderful piece on how Gaia seems to be trying to teach us to see the dangers of unlimited global commerce: “We are seeing right now how in an over-connected web a localised disturbance such as the appearance of a fatal virus can spread and amplify very quickly throughout the system, reducing its resilience and making it more likely to collapse.” 

At this juncture, many massive, pivotal choices await us. We must decide to rebuild our provisioning systems on green, eco-resilient terms, not on neoliberal fantasies of unlimited growth and tightly integrated global markets. New/old types of place-based agriculture, commerce, and community must be developed.

This will entail a frank reckoning with how we re-imagine and enact state power, writes Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, in the Financial Times: “The first [choice] is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.” Harari warns:

Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.

Obviously, I think the commons has a lot to contribute to citizen empowerment and global solidarity. Hope lies in building new systems of bottom-up, place-based provisioning and care that are peer-governed, fair-minded, inclusive, and participatory. Hope lies in federating diverse commons so that they can coordinate and reach more people – accountably, flexibly, effectively, with resilience.

State institutions may be able to play positive roles, mostly in providing general rules, coordination, certain types of expertise, and infrastructure. Beyond that, they should focus on empowering people and smaller-scale governance and thereby engender trust in collective action.

It is still too early to know how the pandemic will unfold and resolve. There are too many complex variables play to predict the many ramifications. However, it is clear enough that this pandemic calls into question MANY elements of today’s neoliberal market/state order, whose institutions and political leadership are either dysfunctional or uncommitted to meeting public needs. It's not just individual politicians; it's a systemic problem. Yet the rudiments of a coherent new system with richer affordances have not yet crystallized. 

So that may be our ambitious task going forward. Commoners and allied movements, disillusioned liberals and social democrats, and people of goodwill must thwart the many retrograde dangers that threaten to surge forward under the cover of fear. But we must also, simultaneously, demonstrate the feasibility of new forms of commoning, infrastructure, finance, and commons/public partnerships. Rarely have needs and opportunities been so aligned!

Resources for Preparing Kids for the Abbreviated APUSH Exam!

John Burkowski, Jr., a board member of the Florida Council for the Social Studies and an excellent Advanced Placement Teacher down in the Dade County area, shares these resources for helping your kids prep for the APUSH Exam through distance education! Check out the excellent resources below.

Suggested Plan of Action for Abbreviated 2020 APUSH Exam:

Plan accordingly with whatever remaining unit topics. Supplement with Jocz Productions / Adam Norris / etc. video reviews available on YouTube.

Use AP Classroom for review and practice questions.


Focus your efforts on the Course Exam and Description key concepts.



APUSH, AP Government, and U.S. History videos for students, history lovers, and weird people on the internet.

Welcome to your one stop guide to all things APUSH, including textbook chapter reviews.

Use AP Classroom through the Personal Progress Checks and teacher-built practice modules.

We will not know the format until April 3, so I recommend primarily focusing your FRQ section efforts on the SAQ 2. It is a primary source based SAQ that I believe would be the most efficient way to focus on all skills for any FRQ we get.


College Board will be adding video reviews for CED unit topics starting this week. Bookmark the playlist for reference and potential implementation.

Also, definitely do thesis development by using released DBQ and LEQ prompts; using Periods 1-7 prompts of course.

I have compiled publicly released Period 1-7 SAQs to use for planning and practice.


Shameless plug for my website for ppts and reviews.