The United States is in the middle of another COVID-19 surge, and there’s no mystery as to why. Now that a majority of eligible American adults are vaccinated against the virus, social distancing, mask requirements, and other pandemic safety measures in each state have been steadily reduced. But America has not achieved the level of public vaccination that would provide “herd immunity” to the virus—that is, a level of vaccination high enough that transmission of the virus through communities largely ceases due to a lack of infection targets—and so that return to unmasked “normal” has had dire consequences for Americans who are still unvaccinated. Among the vaccinated, pandemic infections remain low. Among the unvaccinated, including children too young for the vaccine, the new “delta” variant is spreading through unmasked communities like wildfire.
There are only two possible solutions to the new surge: Either the vast majority of Americans need to get vaccinated—and quickly—or widespread shutdowns need to again occur to prevent regional hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with new patients. (A third solution preferred by conservative Republicans—in which we allow the pandemic to take its course, with each citizen deciding for themselves whether they will or will not infect those around them and accepting widespread deaths as the necessary price—is too malevolent to take seriously.)
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom today announced the state’s new attempt to address the crisis: Every one of the state’s quarter million-plus state employees will have to choose. State employees will be required to either show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly for COVID-19 infection.
You don’t have to be vaccinated. But if you want to keep your job, you’re going to have to continuously prove you’re not a danger to your coworkers.
This tradeoff between requiring vaccinations or requiring proof of your negative COVID-19 status is likely going to spread, because the status quo isn’t going to be tenable. If the pandemic is spreading almost entirely among the unvaccinated, then the unvaccinated are either going to have to go into lockdown (again) or abide by other safety measures that can prevent infection. Also in California, a group of several hundred San Francisco bar owners are announcing that customers wanting to enter their businesses will either have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. That mandate may spread to more city businesses, and the city itself is contemplating similar moves.
Within the federal government, the Department of Veterans Affairs will be requiring 115,000 front-line health workers to be vaccinated in an effort to protect patients.
These new vaccination mandates aren’t happening in a vacuum. Vaccination rates among public workers continue to be deplorable in some regions, contributing to pandemic spread. Both governments and private businesses are getting fed up with a surge that didn’t have to happen, resulting in more blunt warnings to workers than have been given in the past. The NFL has warned that if unvaccinated players result in an outbreak that requires the cancellation of a game, the team with the outbreak will be pinned as forfeiting the game. That puts the safety onus on the willfully unvaccinated: You don’t have to get a free vaccine that may save your life or the life of someone around you, but if you take the risk and your decision screws your entire team out of a playoff berth, then that’s going to be between you, the rest of your team, and every one of your irritated fans.
It is not likely that the United States will return to widespread public shutdowns, at least not unless the winter surge threatens to become even more catastrophic than the current one. There is no stomach for it; the places where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly now are the places where public or official contempt for safety measures resulted in lax measures to begin with. That means the next stage of the pandemic may require limiting where the unvaccinated can visit—or work—even as vaccinated Americans face far fewer restrictions.
Yep. Vaccine “passports” may be the government- and business-preferred way out of this new mess. It didn’t have to happen, but it was either widespread vaccination or … this.
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One Senate seat. Just one. Four House seats. Four. That’s the very slender reed upon which President Joe Biden’s success or failure is riding in the 2022 midterm elections. Without intervention from Congress very soon, that election will be held under Jim Crow 2.0 in 18 states with 30 new voter suppression laws so far. The states aren’t done yet, and the redistricting—or in many of these states, the gerrymandering—has not yet begun.
The tidal wave of voter suppression laws coupled with the gerrymandering that’s coming mean that when President Joe Biden says that even without breaking the filibuster and passing new voting rights legislation, “the American public, you can’t stop them from voting. […] They’re going to show up again. They’re going to do it again,” voting rights activists respond with, “We’re fucked.”
That’s a quote from Georgia organizer Nsé Ufot, who told Politico that they’re doing their best but “if there isn’t a way for us to repeat what happened in November 2020, we’re fucked,” she said. “We are doing what we do to make sure that not only our constituents, our base, the people, the communities that we organize with, get it. We’re trying to make sure that our elected officials get it as well,” Ufot added. But the latest news out of Georgia completely stacks the deck against whatever organizing they can do: Republicans are plotting the takeover of the elections board for Fulton County—the state’s largest and most important Democratic county. The state where Sen. Raphael Warnock—whose win in a special election flipped the Senate to Democratic control in January—is running for reelection in 2022.
Georgia’s new voting law allows Republican state officials to take over local election operations, basically firing local officials and appointing their own people to control elections. They passed this law and are threatening to carry it out based on the Big Lie that Democratic elections officials stole the election on behalf of Biden. “All legal and procedural options are on the table if they don’t do their job,” said state Rep. Chuck Martin, a Fulton county Republican of local elections officials. “That’s not a threat. That’s just good policy.” By “do their job,” he means not counting all the Democratic votes, presumably.
Which brings us to gerrymandering, the partisan carving up of congressional districts that would be stopped by the For the People Act. Georgia, along with North Carolina and Florida, could help Republicans gain as many as five House seats. David Shor, head of data science at OpenLabs R&D, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to advancing progressive causes, estimates “the negative impact of gerrymandering is ~20X larger than the theoretical upper bound of a massively well funded field program.”
Michale Li, redistricting and voting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, reiterates that with actual data. “In 2012 in PA, Democrats got 51% of the congressional vote but won just 5 of 18 seats. The map was so gerrymandered that even if Ds won 56% of the vote, they would have won only 6 of 18 seats.” House Democrats, in fact, got 4.7 million more votes than Republicans in 2020, and lost 12 seats.
Professor Sam Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, sees more of that: As many as eight seats could flip in 2022 in the House as a result of redistricting. “I would say that the national vote could be the same as this year two years from now, and redistricting by itself would easily be enough to alter who controls the chamber.” Even if the record turnout of 2020 was repeated—which is a thing that never happens in midterm elections—the House would still go to Republicans, he is predicting. That is, again, without a federal law curtailing gerrymandering.
Realization might be dawning on at least some filibuster-loving Democrats that this status quo is not sustainable for democracy. Virginia Democrat Mark Warner told Fox News this weekend: “If we have to do a small carve out on filibuster for voting rights—that is the only area where I’d allow that kind of reform.” This isn’t actually a new position for Warner. He told The Washington Post back in March: “When it comes to fundamental issues like protecting Americans from draconian efforts attacking their constitutional right to vote, it would be a mistake to take any option off the table.”
Warner is a key moderate working with the staunch anti-reformer Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin on the bipartisan infrastructure team. That’s what makes his statement—on Fox News on Sunday—noteworthy. It might not be his intention, but the result is that he’s isolating those two staunch filibuster fans just that much more within the caucus.
That’s good, but it might not be enough. Now would be a really good time for the presidential bully pulpit to be used, with the redistricting process now heating up in the states.
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More than six months into the Biden administration, Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said he’s failed to receive adequate answers into the deployment of untrained federal officers in his hometown of Portland by the previous administration last year. CNN reports that a letter sent to the Biden White House in June in anticipation of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) nominee Chris Mangus’ Senate hearing has gone unanswered.
Wyden has now said he’s halting Mangus’ hearing until he gets needed responses. “While it is clear that Customs and Border Protection faces pressing issues, as the senior senator from Oregon, I am unable to advance this nominee until DHS and DOJ give Oregonians some straight answers about what they were up to in Portland last year, and who was responsible,” BuzzFeed News reports Wyden has told the Biden administration.
“Members of Congress, local officials, and the public have expressed concerns about CBP’s presence and questionable actions—especially given the agency’s track record of abusive policing tactics and use of excessive force,” groups said last year in suing for information about the deployment of officers to protests following the police murder of George Floyd last year. Among officers sent to terrorize demonstrators in Portland were members of a special tactical unit that then raided a humanitarian medical camp in the border desert.
“At the time, Wyden had sought answers from then-Attorney General William Barr and former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf about the deployment of federal officers, calling the response on the ground ‘intolerable,’” CNN reported. Wyden again relayed his concerns to their successors, Merrick Garland and Alejandro Mayorkas. The Washington Post reports that while he has received some information from officials, “the answers fell short.”
“As they have not provided [responses], Sen. Wyden informed the administration this week he would not be able to hold a hearing until his questions are sufficiently answered,” CNN reports Wyden’s office said. Mangus, Biden’s nominee to officially head CBP, is “a progressive police chief who promoted community policing efforts while overseeing departments in Tucson and Richmond, Calif,” The New York Times reported in April.
While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general released a report in April saying the department had authority to ploy officers from CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Secret Service, they were unprepared. “Specifically, not all officers completed required training; had the necessary equipment; and used consistent uniforms, devices, and operational tactics when responding to the events in Portland,” the report said.
Jenn Budd, a former senior border agent turned whistleblower, told The Guardian last year that the special tactical unit deployed to Portland is among “the most violent and racist in all law enforcement.” Humanitarian organization No More Deaths, which exists to prevent the horrific deaths of migrants in the border wilderness, said that members of CBP also stabbed gallons of water during the raid on its camp last year. Border agents already have a disgusting history of destroying water intended for migrants. They’ve even been caught on tape in the act.
Then-candidate Biden slammed the previous administration’s attacks on protesters, saying in a statement at the time that “Homeland Security agents—without a clearly defined mandate or authority — are ranging far from federal property, stripped of badges and insignia and identifying markings, to detain people. They are brutally attacking peaceful protesters, including a U.S. Navy veteran.”
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After six months of Republican attempts to block it from happening, a congressional committee will on Tuesday begin to hear testimony from witnesses on the events of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Four police officers attacked by the crowd will be the select committee’s first witnesses.
All of this is still happening without the support of Republican leaders, who continue to insist that revisiting the “history” of an attempted overthrow of the U.S. government six months ago is merely Democratic gamesmanship to make Republicans look bad. These claims continue despite Donald Trump and Republican allies continuing, even now, to tell crowds that the election that removed him from power was fraudulent and that winner Joe Biden may yet be removed from office so that Trump himself can take over.
Those insurrection-backing false claims represent an ongoing danger to the safety of the American public and the stability of government itself, but Republican Party leaders and lawmakers are nearly unanimous in refusing to even acknowledge that they are happening. On the contrary, each proposed bipartisan probe of a violent insurrection has been blocked by those Republicans, one after the other, and the current select committee formed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is no different. After Pelosi’s rejection of two House Republicans—Jim Jordan and Jim Banks, who had repeatedly expressed an intent to disrupt the committee’s probe—McCarthy pulled all remaining Republican members from consideration in an attempt to portray this committee, too, as solely a Democratic endeavor.
At least two House Republicans have now been seated to the committee anyway, however. Rep. Liz Cheney was stripped of her Republican leadership position after she condemned the false election claims used by insurrectionists to justify their violence, but accepted Pelosi’s invitation to be seated on the select committee over Republican objections. Rep. Adam Kinzinger has similarly accepted Pelosi’s appointment.
Both Republicans are likely to face retaliation from their fellow House Republicans for daring to assist in the insurrection probe. The Republican “Freedom Caucus,” made up of far-right House Republicans who were among the most eager to promote fraudulent election claims and similar propaganda, are demanding McCarthy strip both Cheney and Kinzinger from all other committee assignments as punishment—a move that Pelosi herself could immediately reverse by reappointing them both regardless of Republican complaints.
What is evident, though, is that support for the insurrection is now so solidified among Republican lawmakers that even investigating the events of that day is considered to be an attack on the party.
That view may not be wrong. Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate eagerly pushed false claims about the election results from November onward. Multiple lawmakers spoke to the crowd assembled by Trump just before the attack on the Capitol began. A majority of House Republicans voted to reject the electoral vote totals in Biden-won states due to Trumpian claims of fraud that were knowably false. All of this was aimed at discrediting the incoming not-Republican administration; at justifying further sabotage of not-Republican priorities; at placating a delusional, authoritarian incompetent; and at discrediting the process of elections in general—thus justifying a new nationwide push for new voting laws aimed squarely at complicating the process for working class voters and other not-Republican communities while putting new rules in place allowing Republican-held legislatures to directly manipulate how elections are run and whether their results will be accepted.
Each of these Republican claims, made by Republican lawmakers to a Republican-backing crowd specifically assembled by Donald Trump and his allies as direct counter to the House and Senate verification of the election’s results, is directly responsible for goading that crowd into violence on Jan. 6. The insurrectionists were made to believe that a U.S. election had been fraudulently decided and that they themselves would be patriots if they took action against Congress to prevent the “fraud” from being formally accepted. The whole point of the “march” that day was to intimidate Congress into falsifying the election results in favor of the Republican loser; the whole point of marching in those precise moments was to arrive at the perilously unguarded Capitol exactly as Trump’s singled-out enemies were formalizing his removal from power.
There is absolutely no question that the insurrection was caused by false Republican propaganda promoted by the party as means to overturn a U.S. election. None. There is no plausible argument that the insurrection of Jan. 6 would still have happened if Republican lawmakers had not amplified Trump’s patently false election conspiracy claims, or if Trump’s Republican allies had not specifically arranged for the mob of violent militia members and other alleged “patriots” to assemble outside Congress on that specific day and time, or if Republican broadcasters had not jumped wholeheartedly to manufacture and disseminate an unending series of new conspiracy claims blaming Trump’s loss on everything from dead Venezuelan leaders to Italian satellites to voting companies to the brand of pens used on the ballots to antifa to alleged bamboo-infused ballots shipped in from China.
It was a Republican insurrection, supported by the party up until the moment lawmakers found their own lives in danger—and supported again as soon as lawmakers were convinced the danger had passed. Of course House Republicans intend to block any and all retellings of that day. Trump is making the same claims even now; the insurrection being probed by a new House select committee isn’t even over yet.
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While White House officials continue to be dedicated to the proposition that grassroots groups can “out-organize voter suppression” efforts in the states, leaders of those very same grassroots groups have a different message for the White House: “We’re fucked.”
That’s exactly what Georgia organizer Nsé Ufot told Politico about the GOP’s new voter suppression laws in the crucial swing state.
Ufot, who’s the CEO of the Stacey Abrams-founded New Georgia Project, said their organization is trying to lay the groundwork to overcome the Republican attack on voting rights in the state, but “if there isn’t a way for us to repeat what happened in November 2020, we’re fucked,” she said. “We are doing what we do to make sure that not only our constituents, our base, the people, the communities that we organize with, get it. We’re trying to make sure that our elected officials get it as well,” Ufot added.
In other words, yes, we’re organizing on the ground, but hey, elected officials, how about you do your part too?
Activists across the country are desperately trying to disabuse White House officials of the notion that inaction is a reasonable course of action to combat the raft of GOP-led voter suppression laws already passed in some 18 states.
In Georgia, one of the most onerous changes to state voting laws is the voter identification requirement for mail-in ballots that could prove prohibitive for nearly 300,000 voters who lack such identification. In addition, the GOP’s severe reduction in the availability of drop boxes could jam hundreds of thousands more voters in the Atlanta suburbs who used those boxes to cast ballots in 2020, along with voters in other parts of the state. Taken together, those two changes alone threaten to impact hundreds of thousands of voters in a state where then-candidate Joe Biden eked out a win by roughly 12,000 votes.
The Georgia State Democratic Party is rushing to reactivate its 2018 midterm network in order to train county chairs, Democratic activists, and voters in all 159 state counties on the new voter ID laws, according to Politico. The party has also hired three new outreach directors for Black, Latino, and Asian American communities.
Democratic activists in the Peach State will get somewhat of a trial run for their new organizing efforts later this fall during the Atlanta mayoral election. While the political contours of Atlanta-based Fulton County are somewhat distinct from other areas of the state, it’s also the most populous county and critical to Democratic fortunes.
But Democratic organizers in states across the nation face similar hurdles, and organizers continue to be baffled by the lax response from Democrats in Washington.
“I’m super worried,” said Max Wood, founder and CEO of progressive data analytics firm Deck. “I do think there are times when this kind of stuff can galvanize enthusiasm and turnout,” Wood added, “but I don’t know that that will be enough, especially with how extreme some of these laws are.”
And for all the pitfalls the Biden administration has avoided repeating from the Obama administration, failing to properly elevate 2018 and spearhead a coordinated midterm campaign could potentially prove catastrophic for Democratic fortunes nationwide, not to mention President Biden’s agenda.
“I don’t think the Democratic Party as a whole is prioritizing this issue and its potential damage in the way that they should,” said Doug Herman, a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. “We just went through an insurrection that was stoked by voter fraud lies, and the reaction to that from the Republican Party is to restrict the voting process so severely that only their voters can participate. And I don’t understand the lack of fierce resistance to that from Americans and Democrats.”
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