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December 21, 2023 Heather Cox Richardson

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The Washington Post editorial board today wrote that “the battle for democracy will be fought—and won” by “explaining to the world why freedom matters to everyone, every day.” So, on an evening when our power has finally been restored, but too late for me to do a deep dive on anything, let’s see what that might look like from today’s news: 

For years now, the U.S. right wing has admired Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has overturned his nation’s democracy. Orbán claims that democracy weakens a nation because it allows immigration—which he calls “a poison” to a nation and says “poses a public security and terror risk”—and requires equal rights for women and LGBTQ+ individuals. The U.S. right wing claims to admire Orbán for what they see as a defense of traditional society.

But the logical evolution of Orbán’s “illiberal” society became clear last week, when the Hungarian parliament approved a new law designed to punish Hungarians who oppose the government. A new “sovereignty protection office” will intimidate and punish those who do not share the views of the ruling party, claiming that they are working for western governments and entities. The U.S. ambassador in Budapest, David Pressman, explained: “This new state body has unfettered powers to interrogate Hungarians, demand their private documents, and utilize the services of Hungary’s intelligence apparatus—all without any judicial oversight or judicial recourse for its targets.”

The U.S. State Department said yesterday: “This new law is inconsistent with our shared values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”

Also today, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA), who has said that immigration is such a national crisis that House Republicans will not pass a bill providing supplemental funding for Ukraine to help it fight off Russia’s invasion without significant changes to the nation’s border policy, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to make those changes himself through executive action.

Biden has asked Congress for new legislation to address migration at the border since his first week in office, but Trump and his loyalists have demanded extreme measures that Democrats have, in the past, refused. With Republican refusal to fund Ukraine, Biden has said he is eager enough to get funding to Ukraine that he is willing to negotiate, but Johnson sent the House home until January 9 without a deal. 

Now it seems Republicans don’t want their own names on any such deal, likely recognizing that such an outcome would take away an issue they hope to exploit  in 2024. They want Biden’s name alone on any new policies or, failing that, to be able to blame him for not taking unilateral action.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre today reminded reporters that the White House has been negotiating with senators to come up with a bipartisan deal despite the absence of House members, and that Biden has been negotiating with the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to address the border situation. 

In the next few days, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall will all travel to Mexico to meet with President López Obrador to discuss border challenges, all in the spirit of the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration for Migration and Protection, an agreement between 21 Caribbean and Latin American nations, including the United States, to strengthen international frameworks to make migration safe, orderly, and humane. 

Also today, Craig Mauger of The Detroit News reported that on November 17, 2020, on a phone call with Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, Trump personally pressured two Republican members of the Wayne County, Michigan, Board of Canvassers not to sign the papers certifying the 2020 presidential election in order to overturn the election’s lawful results.

Trump told Monica Palmer and William Hartmann that they would look “terrible” if they signed the documents. “We’ve got to fight for our country,” Trump said. “We can’t let these people take our country away from us.” McDaniel, too, urged the pair not to sign and promised, “We will get you attorneys.” 

Palmer and Hartmann did not sign the papers, and the next day they tried to take back their votes in favor of certifying, filing legal affidavits saying “intense bullying and coercion” had led them to vote as they did. 

Lawyer Chris Thomas, Michigan’s elections director for more than 30 years, told Mauger it was unfortunate that Republican leaders offered to give the two legal protection for not doing their jobs. “Offering something of value to a public official to not perform a required duty may raise legal issues for a person doing so,” Thomas noted. Legal analyst Joyce White Vance pointed out that “[o]ffering an official something of value (services of a lawyer) in exchange for withholding official action (certifying the Wayne County vote) sounds like a classic case of bribery under Michigan State law.”

Trump is currently facing four criminal counts for his attempt to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election. His attempts to stop Michigan from certifying Biden’s victory are part of those charges. 

After the story dropped, Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, wrote that for her, “the absolute lowest moment in the post election battle we endured to protect Michigan’s accurate and legitimate election results in 2020 was not when armed protestors stormed my home. It was the night of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting.” 

Benson said the board knew about the pressure not to certify and were prepared to fight in the courts, but also knew that such a delay would “create enough doubt and uncertainty to enable the Trump campaign to push Pennsylvania, which was certifying the next week, to delay as well. And we knew other dominos would fall after that. How could we overcome the pressure of the then–President of the United States on local and state officials? Were the facts and law not enough?”

“Well,” she wrote, “then something I’ll never forget happened.

“Hundreds—hundreds (!)—of citizens showed up to the meeting of the Wayne County Canvassing Board to remind them of their duty under the law to ensure their votes counted. Their voices mattered. Their votes mattered.

“In my view that turned the tide. Citizens and election officials in Wayne County and statewide didn’t flinch, stood firm, and demanded their votes be certified as required under the law.

“And in the end, the Wayne County Canvassing board fulfilled their legal duty, followed the law and certified the election.

“What started as the lowest moment of the post election melee became the most inspiring. 

“The voters won. Facts and the rule of law carried the day. 

“Democracy prevailed.” 

Finally, tonight, former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has filed for bankruptcy less than a week after a jury awarded election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss more than $145 million for defaming them by accusing them of election fraud as part of his attempt to overthrow the country’s democratic system.

The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote that “the world’s democracies should create a system to fight back that can speak plainly and consistently about the inherent advantages of democratic systems, while admitting the imperfections, and use creative ways to illuminate the flaws and depredations of authoritarian regimes.”

To be honest, it doesn’t seem that hard. 

Notes:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/12/21/autocracy-democracy-internet-circumvention/

https://www.politico.eu/article/viktor-orban-migrants-are-a-poison-hungarian-prime-minister-europe-refugee-crisis/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/dec/21/hungary-draconian-new-law-can-be-used-to-punish-orban-critics-us-warns

https://www.state.gov/concern-with-hungarys-sovereign-defense-authority-law/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2023/12/21/press-briefing-by-press-secretary-karine-jean-pierre-and-nsc-coordinator-for-strategic-communications-john-kirby-35/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/06/10/los-angeles-declaration-on-migration-and-protection/

https://www.politico.com/live-updates/2023/12/21/congress/johnson-writes-biden-00132904

https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2023/12/21/donald-trump-recorded-pressuring-wayne-canvassers-not-to-certify-2020-vote-michigan/72004514007/

https://embed.documentcloud.org/documents/23893902-trump-indictment/?embed=1 (Michigan is highlighted on pp. 17–20)

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/giuliani-bankruptcy-148-million-defamation-judgment/

Twitter (X):

JocelynBenson/status/1738021745280286966

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Your Constitutional Right To Zyn Kiran Sampath

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Photo illustration by The Free Press

According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, they are a “sinister new threat to the health of young Americans.” Vox says they explain “the new ethos of conservative young men.” Business Insider frets that its users belong to “a subculture on the right that doesn’t just tolerate nicotine use, but venerates it.” 

A new front has opened up in the culture war, and the fight is over inch-long nicotine pouches called Zyns. The product was developed as a cleaner, healthier alternative to “Snus”—moist tobacco pouches tucked inside the gums. Zyn pouches offer all the nicotine without the sticky mess. In other words, Zyns are to Snus what Juuls are to cigarettes—and the latest wave in the push for ever more refined, automatic, and hassle-free nicotine delivery.

And they are popular. Nicotine pouches debuted in the U.S. in 2016 and sales grew by over 540 percent between August 2019 to March 2022. Brands like On! and Velo have played their part, but Zyn, the brand born in Sweden in 2014 and acquired by the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris in 2022, commands 75 percent of the market share as of 2023.

“Part of the appeal is the name.” says Wilson Nesbit, an economics student at Yale University. “It’s short. It’s sweet. And you can put it in a lot of words.” 

In other words, it’s memeable. “Monica Lezynsky,” Nesbit offers. “Zyn-Manuel Miranda. Qui-Gon Zyn.”

Nesbit lives on Lynwood Place, a small street just off Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Lynwood is home to two churches, three fraternities, two secret societies, one Chabad house, and a boatload of nicotine. Hence the block’s new nickname, Zynwood. 

“It’s been known as Zynwood for two years,” says Nesbit, who lives with six boys in a house on the street. “The guys who lived here before us had a tent with the Zyn brand stamped across it.” More recently, he underwent an artistic project to solidify the community’s identity, collecting the empty Zyn tins from throughout the neighborhood—277 of them—and spelling out ZYNWOOD on the wall of their living room. 

The Zynwood sign. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Nesbit)

But Zyns aren’t just for college kids. Twentysomethings in corporate jobs now see them as a sophisticated way to get a nicotine hit.

“Vapes are unprofessional,” Andrew Schuler, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, former vaper, and Zyn user, tells me. “We need nicotine to cope with our jobs because they are extremely stressful,” says Schuler, who goes through three to four pouches a day. “But you’re not going to rip a clunky-looking, purple-colored vape at your desk.”

It’s also about optimization, he said. “Smoking a cigarette requires a break.”

“The guy who used to work at the desk next to me used to take meetings with a Zyn in his cheek,” says one friend, a former Goldman Sachs banker. 

For some, nicotine delivered via Zyns isn’t a nasty addiction, but something of a macho life hack. Arch-techbro Peter Thiel claims nicotine raises your IQ 10 points, while Tucker Carlson (Carlzyn?) proclaimed on Theo Von’s podcast, “Zyn is a powerful work enhancer” as well as “a man enhancer.” (Last December, the Nelk Boys podcasters gifted Carlson the world’s largest Zyn, delivered via helicopter.) But it isn’t neccessarily just right-wingers who use Zyn: a recent picture of Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed a Zyn pack-shaped bulge in her white jeans. 

Tucker Carl-zyn with the world’s largest Zyn, and a regular-sized packet for scale. (Image via X)

In January, Chuck Schumer called for a crackdown on Zyns. “Amid federal action against e-cigs and their grip on young people, a quiet and dangerous alternative has emerged and it is called Zyn,” Schumer said, warning that Zyns “lock their sights on teens and use social media to hook them.”

As part of his crackdown, Schumer wants to investigate how Phillip Morris has marketed Zyn, and whether the firm has targeted minors. In 2023, Juul agreed to pay $462 million to settle lawsuits into the marketing of vaping products to children. But, rather than investing in social media influencers or extensive advertising campaigns, Zyn has relied on organic viral traction in the U.S. 

A spokesman for Zyn says the company’s marketing practices “are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry.” 

But even Nesbit says Schumer is right to worry about young people getting hooked on the pouch. “It’s an easy introduction for youths that haven’t used nicotine,” he told me over the phone from Zynwood. “Mitigating youth usage should be a top priority, but finding the right approach is another story.” 

Others see ingesting Zyns as a constitutional right, and Schumer as an enemy of freedom. As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently exclaimed on X about his crackdown : “This calls for a Zynsurrection!”

Kiran Sampath is a researcher and reporter. Read her last piece about the temple in New Jersey that took 12 years and $96 million to build.

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South Korea Is Running Out of Kids. Is This America’s Future? Anna Louie Sussman

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In January, more than 150 schools in South Korea had no new first graders. (Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last few weeks, you might have seen that American women are talking about 4B. The South Korean feminist movement gets its name from the “Four Nos” its adherents commit to: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no childbirth. In short, 4B, which began around 2019, encourages women to actively avoid men as much as possible. That it’s now trending in the U.S. raises an uncomfortable question: Are our gender politics starting to look like Korea’s? And if so, will the demographic consequences be as extreme?

Right now, South Korea is running out of kids. Last week, it was reported that the Education Ministry plans to reduce the number of teacher training places, citing the precipitous decline in students, which is so extreme that in January of this year more than 150 schools across the nation had no new first graders. Six years ago, the average number of children a South Korean woman had in her lifetime was 0.92, a figure rarely seen outside wartime; since then, it’s fallen all the way to 0.78, with a projection of 0.65 in 2025. In Seoul, the capital, it’s already at 0.59

When I visited Seoul in 2022 to report on why Koreans aren’t having babies, I often found myself wondering: Could this happen in America? Our nation’s fertility, though significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1, is currently higher, at 1.8. But, in the course of dozens of conversations with Koreans of reproductive age, I heard more extreme versions of sentiments I’d started to observe at home. 

Today, Americans who want a good old-fashioned heterosexual relationship struggle to find someone who shares their values. Analysis has shown a gigantic mismatch in the nation’s dating pool: for each single liberal woman, there exist 0.6 single liberal young men. Conservative young men have it even worse, with just 0.5 single conservative young women available to choose from. At the end of last year, the pollster Dan Cox found that this divide is particularly intense among American members of Gen Z, whose oldest members are now 27, the average age of a first-time mother in 2022. 

In Gen Z, Cox showed, women and men are much further apart on fundamental questions of gender equality than the generation before them: whereas 52 percent of millennial men say they’re feminists, compared to 54 percent of women, the equivalent figures for Gen Z are 43 percent and 61 percent. In 2019, a third of adult men under 30 said they face discrimination based on their sex; only five years later, that number has increased to almost half.

Recent data suggest this gender divide is global—and growing. In January, a Financial Times report showed the wide, and widening, divergence in political values between young women and men. This is true in South Korea and the U.S. but also in China, Germany, and the UK.

Americans haven’t given up on having a family to the extent that South Koreans have. In 2023, about 35 percent of Koreans said they don’t think having children after marriage is necessary, a figure that rose to more than 57 percent among 19- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, a recent Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Americans under 30 “either already have children (21 percent) or hope to someday (63 percent).” 

But young American women haven’t just been making TikToks about 4B out of curiosity—an increasing number are genuinely swearing off male partners, with the hashtag #celibacyjourney racking up tens of millions of views. A New York Times op-ed published in February described going “boysober” as “this year’s hottest mental health craze.” Meanwhile, men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” are retreating to online echo chambers that, one 2022 study suggested, now harbor eight times as many instances of degrading language toward women than they did in 2016. In the twelve months after December 2022, self-described misogynist Andrew Tate’s following on X increased from 3 million to 8.5 million.

Conservative politicians across the globe are capitalizing on these divides. Not long before I arrived in Korea, the president Yoon Suk-yeol had coasted into office in May 2022 on a wave of anti-feminist campaign promises, in what multiple observers described as an “incel election.” For the first time, young men describing themselves as anti-feminist were seen as an influential voting bloc, with Yoon promising to abolish the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. (He has not yet succeeded.)

In the U.S., the Republicans also appear to be aggressively courting the male vote. Since the fall of Roe, the Republican Party has become actively hostile to women’s reproductive rights, pushing female voters left. And some of the party’s most influential members are now stoking a war between men and women.

In a breathtakingly offensive comment last January, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz called for the Republican Party to all but forget about female voters, saying that “For every Karen we lose, there’s a Julio and a Jamal ready to sign up for the MAGA movement.” Fox News host Jesse Watters has been even more explicit in singling out liberal single women as the GOP’s nemesis, alighting, somehow, on matrimony as an electoral strategy. 

“Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points,” he said after the 2022 midterms. “We need these ladies to get married,” he warned, following up with an order: “Guys, go put a ring on it.” 

And yet a recent poll found that 40 percent of Republicans said they don’t believe marital rape should definitely or probably be prosecuted, suggesting the party’s not overflowing with eligible bachelors. 

All signs point to an ever-widening rift between the sexes. And if women and men become sworn enemies, America is going to start running out of kids, too.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist covering gender, economics, and reproduction. She is a 2024 Alicia Patterson Fellow

For more on America’s gender divide, read Rikki Schlott’s piece, “When It Comes to Sex, My Generation Is Screwed,” and become a Free Press subscriber today:

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April 15, 2024 Garamond

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