A Uniquely Dangerous Moment

Robert Kagan of The Washington Post explains why the threat we face is unique in American history. His article is almost 6,000 words. I don’t agree with everything he says, but the threat is real. Here’s 75% of what he wrote:

“Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.” — James Madison

The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves. The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial. But about these things there should be no doubt:

First, D____ T____ will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest . . . Barring health problems, he is running.

Second, T____ and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. T____’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.

Meanwhile, the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that T____ and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for T____ are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process.

As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. An Arizona bill flatly states that the legislature may “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election” by a simple majority vote. Some state legislatures seek to impose criminal penalties on local election officials alleged to have committed “technical infractions,” including obstructing the view of poll watchers.

The stage is thus being set for chaos. . . . Today’s arguments over the filibuster will seem quaint in three years if the American political system enters a crisis for which the Constitution offers no remedy.

Most Americans — and all but a handful of politicians — have refused to take this possibility seriously enough to try to prevent it. As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise, their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian.

They have followed the standard model of appeasement, which always begins with underestimation. The political and intellectual establishments in both parties have been underestimating T____ since he emerged on the scene in 2015. They underestimated the extent of his popularity and the strength of his hold on his followers; they underestimated his ability to take control of the Republican Party; and then they underestimated how far he was willing to go to retain power.

The fact that he failed to overturn the 2020 election has reassured many that the American system remains secure, though it easily could have gone the other way — if Biden had not been safely ahead in all four states where the vote was close; if T____ had been more competent and more in control of the decision-makers in his administration, Congress and the states. As it was, T____ came close to bringing off a coup earlier this year. All that prevented it was a handful of state officials with notable courage and integrity, and the reluctance of two attorneys general and a vice president to obey orders they deemed inappropriate.

These were not the checks and balances the Framers had in mind when they designed the Constitution, of course, but T____ has exposed the inadequacy of those protections. The Founders did not foresee the T____ phenomenon, in part because they did not foresee national parties. They anticipated the threat of a demagogue, but not of a national cult of personality. They assumed that the new republic’s vast expanse and the historic divisions among the 13 fiercely independent states would pose insuperable barriers to national movements based on party or personality. “Petty” demagogues might sway their own states, where they were known and had influence, but not the whole nation with its diverse populations and divergent interests.

Such checks and balances as the Framers put in place, therefore, depended on the separation of the three branches of government, each of which, they believed, would zealously guard its own power and prerogatives. The Framers did not establish safeguards against the possibility that national-party solidarity would transcend state boundaries because they did not imagine such a thing was possible. Nor did they foresee that members of Congress, and perhaps members of the judicial branch, too, would refuse to check the power of a president from their own party.

In recent decades, however, party loyalty has superseded branch loyalty, and never more so than in the T____ era. As the two T____ impeachments showed, if Republican members of Congress are willing to defend or ignore the president’s actions simply because he is their party leader, then conviction and removal become all but impossible. In such circumstances, the Framers left no other check against usurpation by the executive — except (small-r) republican virtue.

Critics and supporters alike have consistently failed to recognize what a unique figure T____ is in American history. Because his followers share fundamentally conservative views, many see T____ as merely the continuation, and perhaps the logical culmination, of the Reagan Revolution. This is a mistake . . . In fact, the passions that animate the T____ movement are as old as the republic and have found a home in both parties at one time or another.

Suspicion of and hostility toward the federal government; racial hatred and fear; a concern that modern, secular society undermines religion and traditional morality; economic anxiety in an age of rapid technological change; class tensions . . . ; distrust of the broader world, especially Europe. . . — such views and attitudes have been part of the fabric of U.S. politics since the anti-Federalists, the Whiskey Rebellion and Thomas Jefferson. The Democratic Party was the home of white supremacists until they jumped to George Wallace in 1968 and later to the Republicans. Liberals and Democrats in particular need to distinguish between their ongoing battle with Republican policies and the challenge posed by T____ and his followers. One can be fought through the processes of the constitutional system; the other is an assault on the Constitution itself.

What makes the T____ movement historically unique is not its passions and paranoias. It is the fact that for millions of Americans, T____ himself is the response to their fears and resentments. This is a stronger bond between leader and followers than anything seen before in U.S. political movements. Although the Founders feared the rise of a king or a Caesar, for two centuries Americans proved relatively immune to unwavering hero-worship of politicians. Their men on horseback — Theodore Roosevelt, Grant, even Washington — were not regarded as infallible. This was true of great populist leaders as well. William Jennings Bryan a century ago was venerated because he advanced certain ideas and policies, but he did not enjoy unquestioning loyalty from his followers. Reagan was criticized by conservatives for selling out conservative principles, for deficit spending, for his equivocal stance on abortion, for being “soft” on the Soviet Union.

T____ is different, which is one reason the political system has struggled to understand, much less contain, him. The American liberal worldview tends to search for material and economic explanations for everything, and no doubt a good number of T____ supporters have grounds to complain about their lot in life. But their bond with T____ has little to do with economics or other material concerns.

They believe the U.S. government and society have been captured by socialists, minority groups and sexual deviants. They see the Republican Party establishment as corrupt and weak — “losers,” to use T____’s word, unable to challenge the reigning liberal hegemony. They view T____ as strong and defiant, willing to take on the establishment, Democrats, Republicans In Name Only, liberal media, antifa, the Squad, Big Tech and the “Mitch McConnell Republicans.”

His charismatic leadership has given millions of Americans a feeling of purpose and empowerment, a new sense of identity. While T____’s critics see him as too narcissistic to be any kind of leader, his supporters admire his unapologetic, militant selfishness. Unlike establishment Republicans, T____ speaks without embarrassment on behalf of an aggrieved segment of Americans . . .  who feel they have been taking it on the chin for too long. And that is all he needs to do.

There was a time when political analysts wondered what would happen when T____ failed to “deliver” for his constituents. But the most important thing T____ delivers is himself. His egomania is part of his appeal. In his professed victimization by the media and the “elites,” his followers see their own victimization. That is why attacks on T____ by the elites only strengthen his bond with his followers. That is why millions of T____ supporters have even been willing to risk death [to COVID-19] as part of their show of solidarity: When T____’s enemies cited his mishandling of the pandemic to discredit him, their answer was to reject the pandemic. One T____ supporter didn’t go to the hospital after developing covid-19 symptoms because he didn’t want to contribute to the liberal case against T____. “I’m not going to add to the numbers,” he told a reporter.

Because the T____ movement is less about policies than about T____ himself, it has undermined the normal role of American political parties, which is to absorb new political and ideological movements into the mainstream. Bryan never became president, but some of his populist policies were adopted by both political parties. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters might not have wanted Biden for president, but having lost the nomination battle they could work on getting Biden to pursue their agenda. Liberal democracy requires acceptance of adverse electoral results, a willingness to countenance the temporary rule of those with whom we disagree. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, it requires that people “endure error in the interest of social peace.” Part of that willingness stems from the belief that the democratic system makes it possible to work, even in opposition, to correct the ruling party’s errors and overreach. Movements based on ideas and policies can also quickly shift their allegiances. Today, the progressives’ flag-bearer might be Sanders, but tomorrow it could be Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or someone else.

For a movement built around a cult of personality, these adjustments are not possible. For T____ supporters, the “error” is that T____ was cheated out of reelection by what he has told them is an oppressive, communist, Democrat regime. While the defeat of a sitting president normally leads to a struggle to claim the party’s mantle, so far no Republican has been able to challenge T____’s grip on Republican voters . . .  It is still all about T____. . . .

The T____ movement might not have begun as an insurrection, but it became one after its leader claimed he had been cheated out of reelection. For T____ supporters, the events of Jan. 6 were not an embarrassing debacle but a patriotic effort to save the nation, by violent action if necessary. As one 56-year-old Michigan woman explained: “We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overthrow the government.”

The banal normalcy of the great majority of T____’s supporters, including those who went to the Capitol on Jan. 6, has befuddled many observers. Although private militia groups and white supremacists played a part in the attack, 90 percent of those arrested or charged had no ties to such groups. The majority were middle-class and middle-aged; 40 percent were business owners or white-collar workers. They came mostly from purple, not red, counties.

. . . Their bigotry, for the most part, is typical white American bigotry, perhaps with an added measure of resentment and a less filtered mode of expression since T____ arrived on the scene. But these are normal people in the sense that they think and act as people have for centuries. They put their trust in family, tribe, religion and race. Although jealous in defense of their own rights and freedoms, they are less concerned about the rights and freedoms of those who are not like them. That, too, is not unusual. What is unnatural is to value the rights of others who are unlike you as much as you value your own.

As it happens, however, that is what the American experiment in republican democracy requires. It is what the Framers meant by “republican virtue,” a love of freedom not only for oneself but also as an abstract, universal good; a love of self-government as an ideal; a commitment to abide by the laws passed by legitimate democratic processes; and a healthy fear of and vigilance against tyranny of any kind.

Even James Madison, who framed the Constitution on the assumption that people would always pursue their selfish interests, nevertheless argued that it was “chimerical” to believe that any form of government could “secure liberty and happiness without any virtue in the people.” Al Gore and his supporters displayed republican virtue when they abided by the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2000 despite the partisan nature of the justices’ decision. (Whether the court itself displayed republican virtue is another question.) [Note: they didn’t]

The events of Jan. 6, on the other hand, proved that T____ and his most die-hard supporters are prepared to defy constitutional and democratic norms, just as revolutionary movements have in the past. While it might be shocking to learn that normal, decent Americans can support a violent assault on the Capitol, it shows that Americans as a people are not as exceptional as their founding principles and institutions. Europeans who joined fascist movements in the 1920s and 1930s were also from the middle classes. No doubt many of them were good parents and neighbors, too. People do things as part of a mass movement that they would not do as individuals, especially if they are convinced that others are out to destroy their way of life.

It would be foolish to imagine that the violence of Jan. 6 was an aberration that will not be repeated. Because T____ supporters see those events as a patriotic defense of the nation, there is every reason to expect more such episodes. T____ has returned to the explosive rhetoric of that day, insisting that he won in a “landslide,” that the “radical left Democrat communist party” stole the presidency in the “most corrupt, dishonest, and unfair election in the history of our country” and that they have to give it back. He has targeted for defeat those Republicans who voted for his impeachment — or criticized him for his role in the riot.

Already, there have been threats to bomb polling sites, kidnap officials and attack state capitols. “You and your family will be killed very slowly,” the wife of Georgia’s top election official was texted earlier this year. . . .  Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, T____ insists “there is no way they win elections without cheating. There’s no way.” So, if the results come in showing another Democratic victory, T____’s supporters will know what to do. Just as “generations of patriots” gave “their sweat, their blood and even their very lives” to build America, T____ tells them, so today “we have no choice. We have to fight” to restore “our American birthright.”

Where does the Republican Party stand in all this? The party gave birth to and nurtured this movement; it bears full responsibility for establishing the conditions in which T____ could capture the loyalty of 90 percent of Republican voters. Republican leaders were more than happy to ride T____’s coattails if it meant getting paid off with hundreds of conservative court appointments, including three Supreme Court justices; tax cuts; immigration restrictions; and deep reductions in regulations on business.

Yet T____’s triumph also had elements of a hostile takeover. The movement’s passion was for T____, not the party. . . .  T____’s grip on his supporters left no room for an alternative power center in the party. . . . Those who disapproved of T____ could either keep silent or leave. . . . 

All this has left few dissenting voices within the Republican ecosystem. The Republican Party today is a zombie party. Its leaders go through the motions of governing in pursuit of traditional Republican goals, wrestling over infrastructure spending and foreign policy, even as real power in the party has leached away to T____. From the uneasy and sometimes contentious partnership during T____’s four years in office, the party’s main if not sole purpose today is as the willing enabler of T____’s efforts to game the electoral system to ensure his return to power.

With the party firmly under his thumb, T____ is now fighting the Biden administration on separate fronts. One is normal, legitimate political competition, where Republicans criticize Biden’s policies, feed and fight the culture wars, and in general behave like a typical hostile opposition.

The other front is outside the bounds of constitutional and democratic competition and into the realm of illegal or extralegal efforts to undermine the electoral process. The two are intimately related, because the Republican Party has used its institutional power in the political sphere to shield T____ and his followers from the consequences of their illegal and extralegal activities in the lead-up to Jan. 6. . ..  Party leaders, run interference for the T____ movement in the sphere of legitimate politics, while Republicans in lesser positions cheer on the Jan. 6 perpetrators, turning them into martyrs and heroes, and encouraging illegal acts in the future.

This pincer assault has several advantages. Republican politicians and would-be policymakers can play the role of the legitimate opposition. They can rediscover their hawkish internationalist foreign policy (suspended during the T____ years) and their deficit-minded economics (also suspended during the T____ years). They can go on the mainstream Sunday shows and critique the Biden administration on issues such as Afghanistan. They can pretend that T____ is no longer part of the equation. Biden is the president, after all . . . . It is a dodge. Republicans focus on China and critical race theory and avoid any mention of T____, even as the party works to fix the next election in his favor. The left hand professes to know nothing of what the right hand is doing.

Even T____ opponents play along. Republicans such as Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have condemned the events of Jan. 6, criticized T____ and even voted for his impeachment, but in other respects they continue to act as good Republicans and conservatives. On issues such as the filibuster, Romney and others insist on preserving “regular order” and conducting political and legislative business as usual, even though they know that T____’s lieutenants in their party are working to subvert the next presidential election.

The result is that even these anti-T____ Republicans are enabling the insurrection. Revolutionary movements usually operate outside a society’s power structures. But the T____ movement also enjoys unprecedented influence within those structures. It dominates the coverage on several cable news networks, numerous conservative magazines, hundreds of talk radio stations and all kinds of online platforms. It has access to financing from rich individuals and the Republican National Committee’s donor pool. And, not least, it controls one of the country’s two national parties. All that is reason enough to expect another challenge, for what movement would fail to take advantage of such favorable circumstances to make a play for power?

Today, we are in a time of hope and illusion. The same people who said that T____ wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one. Republicans have been playing this game for five years, first pooh-poohing concerns about T____’s intentions, or about the likelihood of their being realized, and then going silent, or worse, when what they insisted was improbable came to pass. . . . 

The world will look very different in 14 months if, as seems likely, the Republican zombie party wins control of the House. At that point, with the political winds clearly blowing in his favor, T____ is all but certain to announce his candidacy, and social media constraints on his speech are likely to be lifted, since Facebook and Twitter would have a hard time justifying censoring his campaign. With his megaphone back, T____ would once again dominate news coverage, as outlets prove unable to resist covering him around the clock . . . 

But this time, T____ would have advantages that he lacked in 2016 and 2020, including more loyal officials in state and local governments; the Republicans in Congress; and the backing of GOP donors, think tanks and journals of opinion. And he will have the T____ movement, including many who are armed and ready to be activated, again. Who is going to stop him then? On its current trajectory, the 2024 Republican Party will make the 2020 Republican Party seem positively defiant. . . . 

Seven Republican senators voted to convict T____ for inciting an insurrection and attempting to overturn a free and fair election: Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Romney, Sasse and Patrick J. Toomey. It was a brave vote, a display of republican virtue, especially for the five who are not retiring in 2022. . . .  Yet as much credit as they deserve for taking this stand, it was almost entirely symbolic. When it comes to concrete action that might prevent a debacle in 2024, they have balked.

Specifically, they have refused to work with Democrats to pass legislation limiting state legislatures’ ability to overturn the results of future elections, to ensure that the federal government continues to have some say when states try to limit voting rights, to provide federal protection to state and local election workers who face threats, and in general to make clear to the nation that a bipartisan majority in the Senate opposes the subversion of the popular will. Why?

. . .  They can’t be under any illusion about what a second T____ term would mean. T____’s disdain for the rule of law is clear. His exoneration from the charges leveled in his impeachment trials — the only official, legal response to his actions — practically ensures that he would wield power even more aggressively. His experience with unreliable subordinates in his first term is likely to guide personnel decisions in a second. Only total loyalists would serve at the head of the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and the Pentagon. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs will not be someone likely to place his or her own judgment above that of their civilian commander in chief. Nor would a Republican Senate fail to confirm T____ loyalists. In such a world, with T____ and his lieutenants in charge of all the levers of state power, including its growing capacity for surveillance, opposing T____ would become increasingly risky for Republicans and Democrats alike. A T____ victory is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it.

We are already in a constitutional crisis. The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024. Now it is impossible only because anti-T____ Republicans, and even some Democrats, refuse to tinker with the filibuster. It is impossible because, despite all that has happened, some people still wish to be good Republicans even as they oppose T____. These decisions will not wear well as the nation tumbles into full-blown crisis.

It is not impossible for politicians to make such a leap. The Republican Party itself was formed in the 1850s by politicians who abandoned their previous party — former Whigs, former Democrats and former members of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. . . . 

Romney & Co. don’t have to abandon their party. They can fashion themselves as Constitutional Republicans who, in the present emergency, are willing to form a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic. Their cooperation with Democrats could be strictly limited to matters relating to the Constitution and elections. . . . 

Senate Democrats were wise to cut down their once-massive voting rights wish list and get behind the smaller compromise measure unveiled last week by Manchin and Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But they have yet to attract any votes from their Republican colleagues for the measure. Heading into the next election, it is vital to protect election workers, same-day registration and early voting. It will also still be necessary to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which directly addresses the state legislatures’ electoral power grab. . . . 

One wonders whether modern American politicians, in either party, have it in them to make such bold moves, whether they have the insight to see where events are going and the courage to do whatever is necessary to save the democratic system. If that means political suicide for this handful of Republicans, wouldn’t it be better to go out fighting for democracy than to slink off quietly into the night?

Living Things Shaping the Earth Even Now

If climate crisis deniers understood how we living things helped create and maintain the conditions for life on this planet, would some of them come to realize that we are affecting those conditions right now? This is from The Economist:

The idea that Earth is in some way alive, or can be treated as if it were, is common to many mythologies and sensibilities, and has been a theme in science for centuries. Its modern form, though, dates from the 1960s and the insights of James Lovelock, a British scientist then working at jpl, a laboratory in California that is responsible for most of America’s planetary science.

In thinking about the detection of life on other planets Dr Lovelock turned to a broad definition of the phenomenon: one offered by physicists and based on thermodynamics, the science of heat, work and order. This is that life uses, or creates, flows of matter and energy that allow it to increase and maintain complexity within itself. In doing so it deals with the universe’s natural tendency to break down complexity, thus creating disorder (known in thermodynamics as entropy), by actively increasing the entropy of the rest of the universe while reducing its own—exporting disorder, as it were.

Armed with this definition, Dr Lovelock proposed detecting life elsewhere by looking for signs of order, particularly in the form of chemical disequilibria—namely, intrinsically unlikely mixtures of chemicals that would have to be maintained by the persistent export of entropy. He concluded that the most detectable such order, at a planetary level, would be found in the composition of the atmosphere.

On Earth, a variable amount of water vapour aside, 99% of the atmosphere is nitrogen and oxygen. Most of the last 1% consists of argon, helium and neon (“noble” gases that demonstrate their nobility by being inert and fundamentally pointless), and other trace gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

As Dr Lovelock pointed out, this mixture is way out of equilibrium. Oxygen and methane react with each other. Such reactions take place constantly in the atmosphere. For these gases to be present simultaneously requires active sources of one or both. On Earth, life provides these. Plants, algae and some photosynthetic bacteria produce oxygen. Single-celled archaea called methanogens produce methane.

What is more, with energetic encouragement (as offered, for example, by bolts of lightning), oxygen and nitrogen will react with each other too, creating nitrogen oxides. Again, it turns out that life provides a countervailing process which lets the levels of both gases stay constant, despite the lightning. De-nitrifying bacteria produce the energy they need by turning nitrogen-bearing compounds like those oxides back into gaseous nitrogen, thus continuously topping up the level in the atmosphere.

The atmospheres of Earth’s neighbours, Mars and Venus, provided a stark contrast to this picture of biologically driven instability. They contained no pairs of gases that, at concentrations observed, would be likely to react. They were in equilibrium. This led Dr Lovelock to two conclusions: that there was no life on Mars and Venus; and that Earth’s atmosphere was, to a certain degree or in a certain sense, alive. It was not made of cells or enclosed in a membrane. Nor could it reproduce. But the flow of energy and matter through the living bits of the planet kept the atmosphere in disequilibrium and held entropy at bay. Life’s imposition of order and disequilibrium thus operated beyond the boundaries of cells, individuals and species.

The first of these conclusions was not popular. Many scientists wanted to send robots to Mars to look for life. To be told from the off that such searches would be fruitless served no one’s interests. But fruitless they have proved so far to be.

The second conclusion led Dr Lovelock to hypothesise that Earth behaves, to some extent, as a living organism, in that biology-based processes provide it with a degree of self-regulation which the system as a whole uses in order to keep itself to life’s liking. This “Gaia hypothesis” was highly controversial in the 1970s and 1980s. The views of Dr Lovelock, his followers and his opponents have since evolved. The idea that life actively seeks to keep the environment to its liking, a crucial feature of the hypothesis in its early days, is not now widely held. It is, however, universally agreed that the composition of Earth’s atmosphere depends on biological activity and that various feedback mechanisms which maintain the planet’s habitability have biological components.

The idea of Earth’s environment being a creation of its evolving inhabitants, rather than a background against which they evolve, seems on the face of things quite unlikely. Earth’s living organisms are estimated to contain about 550bn tonnes of carbon. Add in the other elements and remember that living things are, by weight, mostly water, and you might get up to a few trillion tonnes all told. The atmosphere weighs 5,000trn tonnes. How could a thin green smear of life which weighs less than 0.1% of that be calling the shots?

The answer is that life is peculiarly energetic stuff. Expressed in terms of power (the amount of energy used per second), life on Earth runs at about 130trn watts. That is roughly ten times the power used by human beings, and three times the flow of energy from Earth’s interior—a flow which drives all the planet’s volcanism, earthquakes and plate tectonics.

Most of what life does with this energy is chemical: building molecules up, breaking them down and dumping some of the eventual waste products into the environment. And this chemical activity is persistent. The cycling which moves carbon from the atmosphere into living things (through photosynthesis) and back to the atmosphere (through respiration) has been fundamental to the planet’s workings for billions of years. The same goes for the cycling of nitrogen. The great biogeochemical cycles are older than any mountain range, ocean or continent. Their work mostly done by bacteria and archaea, they predate the dawn of animals and plants.

The composition of Earth’s atmosphere before the prokaryotes got their membranes on it is a subject on which there are few data. But the geological record makes one thing clear: it contained almost no oxygen. Significant amounts of free oxygen entered the air only after the relevant form of photosynthesis had evolved. At that point the level of bacterially produced methane—which, in the absence of oxygen, could be quite high—crashed. Because methane is a greenhouse gas, so did the temperature. Roughly 2.5bn years ago the “great oxidation event”, as it is known, plunged Earth into an ice age that saw ice sheets spread to the equator.

The subsequent history of the atmosphere, during which oxygen levels have increased episodically, is coupled to life in various ways. There seems to be a link between oxygen reaching a threshold level about 700m years ago and the evolution of the first animals—it is hard, perhaps impossible, to lead an energetically profligate animal lifestyle without the extra power that oxygen provides to a metabolism.

The advent of trees, which were able to store carbon both in greater quantities than previous photosynthesisers and in forms that were hard for other organisms to break down, saw carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere fall far enough to trigger another global ice age. The recovery and utilisation of some of that hard-to-get-at carbon, now transformed to coal, is seeing life alter the atmosphere in yet another way a few hundred million years on—again with climatic consequences.

Over the decades which saw this new understanding of the role life had played in Earth history develop, Dr Lovelock’s associated insights about atmospheres as signals of life elsewhere made little progress. This was partly because of a lack of atmospheres. Aside from Earth’s, the solar system contains only seven thick enough to count. There have been reports of out-of-equilibrium trace gases on Mars (methane) and Venus (phosphine), but in both cases the evidence is shaky. The most recent orbital survey found no evidence at all for methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Happily, the past two decades have revealed thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Telescopes that can examine the atmospheres of some of these which look promisingly habitable should be available soon. One, the much delayed James Webb Space Telescope, is supposed to launch this Hallowe’en. If any of the orbs it studies suggest Gaia has been working her magic there, too, then the ideas these briefs discuss may one day undergo an intriguing examination. Some will probably turn out to be universal biological truths. Others, though, may just be chance properties of life on one particular planet. 

Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this morning I was on my way to the World Trade Center as part of my regular commute. The conductor announced that it appeared a small plane had hit one of the towers. So I took a different train under the Hudson River and got off some blocks north of the Trade Center. Standing on Broadway, I watched the building burning and then got on a subway. By the time I’d gotten to work, the other tower had been hit. I could see them both burning from a window on that side of our building.

I reacted differently than most people, partly because it affected my job. We had to deal with the stock exchange being closed that week. But I didn’t watch any of the endless TV coverage and immediately feared that the president would take advantage of the situation, which he did in disastrous fashion. The air around the site was acrid and stayed that way for a surprisingly long time.

From David Roberts (@drvolts on Twitter):

3,200 on Thursday. 2,400 yesterday. On average, Covid is killing around as many Americans as died on 9/11 every single day. 

The very same people who were willing to send American children to war, spend trillions of dollars nation-building, commit war crimes, torture prisoners, & build a massive domestic-surveillance regime in response to 9/11 are unwilling to wear masks to stop a daily 9/11. 

What’s uncomfortable to talk about is that, especially for the loudest post-9/11 voices, it wasn’t really about the lives lost. It was about ego injury, about being hurt by a group of brown people we’d been socialized to think of as primitive & weak. 

The whole ensuing cascade of horrors was mostly about repairing the injury to the large & tender egos of America’s self-style Manly Men. The official elite discourse somewhat obscured this, but it was very, very clear when you read the war bloggers or watched Fox. 

Why does this 9/11 20th anniversary feel weird & muted? Because the real historical significance of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a downward spiral for the US, as a democracy & as the dominant global superpower. We’re too close to that, to *in it*, to reckon with it. 

And, just to bring it full circle, this explains the utterly hysterical reaction of US political elites & media to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal. It wasn’t about lives, it was about *humiliation*, the “Big Dog” running home with its tail between its legs, in failure. 

Presidential Approval in a New Gilded Age

I wrote about a long book last month, The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, and noted how some of that period’s major issues were much like ours. Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times writes about Biden’s approval rating and how its recent decline of roughly 11% shouldn’t be surprising. (The hysterical reaction to our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a major factor.)

One of the most consistent findings from the past 20 years of public opinion research is that each new president is more divisive than the last. George W. Bush was more divisive than Bill Clinton; Barack Obama was more divisive than Bush; D___ T___ was more divisive than Obama; and Biden may well end up more divisive than T___, at least in terms of approval rating by partisan affiliation. Some of this reflects circumstances, some of it reflects the individuals, but most of it is a function of partisan and ideological polarization. Modern presidents have a high floor for public opinion but a low ceiling. [I think he means their approval ratings stay in a narrow middle range, not very low and not very high.]

This is a major change from the 1970s and 1980s, when the public was less polarized and numbers could swing from the low 30s (even the 20s) to the high 60s and beyond. At the peak of his popularity, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, George H.W. Bush had a job approval rating of 89 percent, including 82 percent among Democrats and 88 percent among independents. Those numbers are just not possible in today’s environment.

Biden’s slide is noteworthy, but it is also exactly what we should expect given the structural conditions of American politics in the 21st century. But this cuts against the unstated assumption that a president should have an approval rating above 50 percent. It’s an assumption that, as Sam Goldman, a professor of political science at George Washington University, observed, is “another example of how we’ve adopted the deeply exceptional midcentury interlude as our baseline — partly because it remains our vision of normality, and partly because that’s when reliable data start.”

The “deeply exceptional midcentury interlude” — roughly speaking the years between the end of World War II and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 — is the source of a lot of our normative understandings of American politics, despite the fact that the conditions of that period are impossible to replicate. When politicians and political observers pine for an era of bipartisanship, they are pining for the 1950s and 1960s (and to an extent the 1970s).

If we were to look farther back in time, to say, the late 19th century, we might find an era that, for all of its indelible foreignness, is closer to ours in terms of the shape and structure of its politics, from its sharp partisan polarization and closely contested national elections to its democratic backsliding and deep anxieties over immigration and demographic change.

We don’t have polling data for President Grover Cleveland. But we do know that he won his victory in the 1884 election by 37 votes in the Electoral College and a half-a-percent in the national popular vote. His successor, Benjamin Harrisonlost the popular vote by a little less than 1 percent and won the Electoral College by 65 votes. Those narrow results suggest, I think, a similarly narrow spread for presidential approval — high floors, low ceilings.

American politics eventually broke out of its late-19th-century equilibrium of high polarization and tightly contested elections. In the 1896 presidential election, William McKinley became the first candidate in decades to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, beating his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, by 4.3 percent. He won re-election in 1900 and after his assassination the following year, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would win in 1904 by the most lopsided margin since Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election victory.

What changed in American politics to produce more decisive national victories? Well, that’s not a happy story. Suffrage restrictions of immigrants in the North, the rise of Jim Crow in the South, and the success of capital in suppressing labor revolt and setting the terms of political contestation had removed millions of Americans from the electorate by the turn of the 20th century. Political power was concentrated and consolidated in a bourgeois class (mostly) represented by the Republican Party, which, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s twin victories in 1912 and 1916, held the White House from 1897 to 1933. It would take another catastrophe, the Great Depression, to change that landscape.

As for the tectonic force that might break our partisan and ideological stalemate? It is impossible to say. Oftentimes in history, things seem stable until, suddenly, they aren’t.

Unquote.

We might think their failure to deal with the pandemic, now amounting to actual sabotage, would destroy the approval ratings of Republican officials. Or their refusal to accept Biden’s win, followed by insurrection at the Capitol, which some of them now celebrate. Or their longstanding denial of the climate crisis. Or coddling the rich. But none of that seems to be making a difference, not these days.

Transcript of Biden’s Speech on Ending Our War in Afghanistan

Below is a shortened, slightly edited transcript of Biden’s speech this afternoon. He explains his decision and responds to criticism (much of the criticism coming from what can only be described as an elite media freakout). I got the transcript from Rev.com, a company that uses AI with human support to create transcripts, captions and translations:

Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan. The longest war in American history. We completed one of the biggest air lifts in history with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety. That number is more than double what most experts felt were possible. No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history, and only the United States had the capacity and the will and ability to do it. And we did it today. . . .

In April, I made a decision to end this war. As part of that decision, we set the date of August 31st for American troops to withdraw. Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan. All the way back as far as March.

The assumption was that more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces that we had trained over the past two decades and equipped would be a strong adversary in their civil war with the Taliban.

That assumption that the Afghan government would be able to hold on for a period of time . . . turned out not to be accurate. But, I still instructed our National Security Team to prepare for every eventuality, even that one, and that’s what we did.

So we were ready, when the Afghan Security Forces, after two decades of fighting for their country and losing thousands of their own, did not hold on as long as anyone expected. We were ready when they and the people of Afghanistan watched their own government collapse and the president flee . . .

As a result, to safely extract American citizens before August 31st, as well as embassy personnel, allies, and partners, and those Afghans who had worked with us and fought alongside of us for 20 years, I had authorized 6,000 troops, American troops to Kabul to help secure the airport.

As General McKenzie said, this is the way the mission was designed. It was designed to operate under severe stress and attack and that’s what it did.

After we started the evacuation 17 days ago, we did initial outreach and analysis and identified around 5,000 Americans who had decided earlier to stay in Afghanistan but now wanted to leave. Our operation ended up getting more than 5,500 Americans out. We got out thousands of citizens and diplomats from those countries that went into Afghanistan with us to get bin Laden. We got out locally employed staff in the United States Embassy and their families, totalling roughly 2,500 people. We got thousands of Afghan translators and interpreters and others who supported the United States out as well.

Now we believe that about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave. Most of those who remain are dual citizens, long time residents, who earlier decided to stay because of their family roots in Afghanistan. The bottom line, 90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were able to leave. And for those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.

Secretary of State Blinken is leading the continued diplomatic efforts to ensure safe passage for any American, Afghan partner or foreign national who wants to leave Afghanistan. . . .

We are joined by over 100 countries that are determined to make sure the Taliban upholds those commitments. It will include ongoing efforts in Afghanistan to reopen the airport as well as overland routes, allowing for continued departure for those who want to leave and to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

The Taliban has made public commitments broadcast on television and radio across Afghanistan on safe passage for anyone wanting to leave, including those who worked alongside Americans. We don’t take them by their word alone, but by their actions. And we have leverage to make sure those commitments are met.

Let me be clear, leaving August the 31st is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives. My predecessor signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove US troops by May 1st, just months after I was inaugurated. It included no requirement that the Taliban work out a cooperative governing arrangement with the Afghan government. But it did authorize the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban’s top war commanders . . .

By the time I came to office the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country. The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1st deadline, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces. But if we stayed, all bets were off. [Note: the previous president had reduced the number of American troops in the country to 2,500.]

So we were left with a simple decision, either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit thousands more troops going back to war. That was the choice, the real choice between leaving or escalating. . . .

The decision to end the military operation at the Kabul airport was based on the unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisors. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff and all the service chiefs and the commanders in the field, their recommendation was that the safest way to secure the passage of the remaining Americans and others out of the country was not to continue with 6,000 troops on the ground in harm’s way in Kabul, but rather to get them out through non-military means.

In the 17 days that we operated in Kabul, after the Taliban seized power, we engage in an around the clock effort to provide every American the opportunity to leave. Our State Department was working 24/7 contacting and talking, and in some cases walking Americans into the airport. Again, more than 5,500 Americans were airlifted out. And for those who remain, we will make arrangements to get them out if they so choose.

As for the Afghans, we and our partners have airlifted 100,000 of them, no country in history has done more to airlift out the residents of another country than we have done. We will continue to work to help more people leave the country who are at risk. We’re far from done. . . .

I take responsibility for the decision. Now some say we should have started mass evacuation sooner and “Couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner?” I respectfully disagree. Imagine if we’d begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuated more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war. There would still have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government, and it would still have been a very difficult and dangerous mission.

The bottom line is there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenge and threats we faced. None. There are those who would say we should have stayed indefinitely, for years on end. They ask, “Why don’t we just keep doing what we were doing? Why do we have to change anything?”

[But] this is a new world. The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan.
The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America. Not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow. . . . I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan.

But I also know that the threat from terrorism [has] changed, expanded to other countries. Our strategy has to change too. . . . As Commander in Chief, I firmly believe the best path to guard our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago. That’s what’s in our national interest.

Here’s a critical thing to understand, the world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation. We have to shore up America’s competitiveness to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century. . . .

As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation in the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. To me there are two that are paramount. First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals. Not ones we’ll never reach. And second, I want to stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.

This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counter-terrorism in Afghanistan . . . morph into a counter-insurgency, nation-building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan, something that has never been done over centuries of their history.

Moving on from that mindset and those kinds of large scale troop deployments will make us stronger and more effective and safer at home. . . .

My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over. I’m the fourth president who has faced the issue of whether and when to end this war. When I was running for president, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. Today, I’ve honored that commitment. It was time to be honest with the American people again. . . .

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refuse to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago. After more than $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan, a cost that researchers at Brown University estimated was over $300 million a day . . . for two decades. . . . You could take the number of $1 trillion, as many say. That’s still $150 million a day for two decades. And what have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?

. . . And most of all, after 800,000 Americans served in Afghanistan . . . After 20,744 American service men and women injured. And the loss of 2,461 American personnel, including 13 lives lost just this week. . . .

So when I hear that we could have, should have, continued the so-called “low grade effort” in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low costs, I don’t think enough people understand how much we’ve asked of the 1% of this country who put that uniform on. . . . A lot of our veterans and our families have gone through hell. Deployment after deployment, months and years away from their families, . . . financial struggles, divorces, loss of limbs, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress. . . .

There is nothing low grade or low risk or low cost about any war. . . . As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it’s time to look at the future, not the past. To a future that’s safer, to a future that’s more secure. To a future the honors those who served and all those who gave what President Lincoln called, “Their last full measure of devotion.”

I give you my word, with all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision and the best decision for America. . . .