Inmates Take Over Meaningless Asylum

Catch up in 6 minutes: Censure Richard Burr but not Larry Pittman? + the school-opening bill passed with a veto-proof margin + a dark day for newspapers, thanks to a Duke grad

Thurs., Feb. 18, 2021 

So, um, sorry about yesterday. This week has sort of gotten away from me, and I ran out of time and headspace to cobble the newsletter together. I also ran out of time and headspace to get to everything I wanted to today. 

Tomorrow, we’ll dig into the possibilities of Raleigh’s post-pandemic future and (finally) get around to dissecting Durham’s resident survey. … I promise. 

Today is going to be cold and gray and gross, with freezing rain and ice in the morning. There will probably be power outages, too. If you need me, I’ll be drinking. (WRAL)

Today’s Number: 64,376

New COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. on Feb. 16, down from a high of 300,619 on Jan. 8. 

Related: While President Biden says everyone should be able to get a COVID vaccination by the end of July, public health experts say the White House needs to get the lead out. (NYT



1. Why No One Cares That Burr Got Censured

I’ve been ruminating on the meaning of the North Carolina Republican Party’s censure of Sen. Richard Burr (not to mention the Wake GOP’s prohibition on Burr entering its headquarters, like he has cooties). 

The NCGOP central committee’s unanimous vote Monday night wasn’t surprising, of course. Neither was the Louisiana GOP’s reprimand of the apostate Sen. Bill Cassidy. Nor will be the likely censures of Republican senators in Nebraska, Maine, Alaska, and Pennsylvania — where a party official helpfully explained, “We did not send [Pat Toomey] there to do the right thing or whatever.”

Voting to convict Donald Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection — a position defensible to anyone with working eyes and firing neurons — violated two cardinal rules: 

  • 1. Donald Trump is always right.   

  • 2. When Donald Trump is wrong, see Rule No. 1. 

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the GOP’s heel turn into a personality cult. There’s little use belaboring the point. Still, there’s a through-the-looking-glass quality to the NCGOP’s condemnation of its seniormost and longest-serving national official. Consider: 

None of those things warranted an emergency meeting and swift denunciation. Voting against the former president did. Weird priorities. 

—> SO WHAT? 

I suppose Burr’s censure has symbolic value. It broadcasts what party officials think the party should stand for (which doesn’t strike me as a good thing, but your mileage may vary). It has no practical effect, however. Burr isn’t seeking re-election. Even if he was, I doubt it would affect his fundraising or support. If anything, it would show how irrelevant the NCGOP — like other state parties — has become. 

The inmates took over an asylum that everyone stopped caring about. 

  • Weak parties, strong partisanship: This concept is key to understanding American politics. We form cultural and psychological attachments to the “team,” not the apparatuses themselves. (Actually, we develop an aversion to the other team.) The parties have eroded

  • It’s about money. When Citizens United opened the floodgates to unlimited fundraising, the center of power shifted. Politicians no longer needed parties. Without that leverage, parties lost their ability to act as gatekeepers. Especially on the right — for now — this has allowed fringe candidates to flourish. 

  • It’s also about trust. Americans have lost faith in institutions, including political parties

  • Paradoxically, the weaker the institution, the stronger our attachment to the team

Party weakness and extremism form a vicious cycle. The less the party infrastructure matters, the easier it is for extremists to conquer. The more the party becomes an outlet for extremists, the less value it has in the real world. 

You end up with a situation like this: 

  • The NCGOP is weak because the NCGOP has radicalized. 

  • The NCGOP has radicalized because the NCGOP is weak. 

You see the same scenario playing out in Arizona, where Trump ally Kelli Ward has run the AZGOP off a far-right cliff, and in Pennsylvania, where the party’s vendetta against Senator Toomey — a Tea Party guy when he was elected in 2010 — might cost them votes in the Philly burbs (if it does anything). 

  • The weaker the parties get, the more radical they’ll become. 

  • The more radical they get, the weaker they’ll become. 

  • Rinse, repeat. 

By the way: The real leader of the North Carolina Republican Party is Phil Berger


  • Fred Eschelman, a North Carolina man with more dollars than sense, is suing the “election integrity” nonprofit True the Vote to get back the $2.5 million he donated after Donald Trump’s defeat. (WaPo)

  • After Mitch McConnell laid into Trump on Saturday — after voting to acquit him — Trump responded with a 600-word statement lashing out at McConnell’s “lack of political insight, wisdom, skill, and personality” and threatening to back primary rivals to McConnell’s preferred Senate candidates. (NYT)

  • Rush Limbaugh has died. I will not speak ill of the dead. I will not speak ill of the dead. I will not speak ill of the dead. I will not speak ill of the dead. I will not speak ill of the dead. I will not speak … (NYT)

Share PRIMER | North Carolina

2. NCGA Passes School Reopening Bill

Yesterday afternoon, the General Assembly passed a bill to require school districts to offer in-person instruction. The legislation, which carves out allowances for teachers at higher risk from COVID exposure, garnered enough Democratic votes to override a veto, should Governor Cooper do so. 

In a press release earlier in the day, he leaned in that direction: 

  • “Children should be back in the classroom safely, and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to DHHS health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies. This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts.”

The case for opening schools goes like this: 

  • Remote learning is bad for students. It’s bad for their grades. It’s bad for their mental health. It’s bad for their attendance records. 

  • Keeping kids at home is bad for the economy — especially for women, who more often than not give up their jobs to become caretakers. 

  • The science shows that kids don’t transmit COVID like adults and they’re much less likely to face severe disease. The CDC thinks we’re good to go

The case against reopening schools goes like this: 

  • Teachers would rather not die, thank you very much. 

  • Besides, the science about school safety isn’t actually that solid. 

  • Teachers become eligible for the vaccine next week. By early April — theoretically — they can be fully inoculated. We’re rushing things at their peril.  

  • And while it’s somewhat rare that children get severe COVID cases, rare is not never

There’s not really a good answer here, at least from my vantage point. 

  • If I were a teacher — I’m not — I’d probably be in no hurry to head back into a germ factory and trust that students will adhere to social distancing and mask rules (which the studies showing low transmissibility have as a prerequisite). 

  • If I were a parent — I’m not — I’d probably be sick of my kid being home all day and worried that he/she was losing their mind. 

  • If I were a political writer — I am — I’d be skeptical of everyone’s political angles. 

Republicans tried to use Reopen as a cudgel last year. It didn’t take, but they haven’t stopped trying. After all, people care more about closed schools than closed Applebees. 

  • The Biden White House has tied itself into knots explaining its school-opening position.

  • But Americans don’t seem too worried: 47% say school reopenings are happening at the right pace, while 27% say they’re happening too slowly and 18% too quickly. (Quinnipiac

In order, the questions for us are: 1) whether Cooper will veto, 2) how hard he’ll lean on NCGA Dems to sustain the veto, and 3) whether they’ll have his back. Cooper is the most popular politician in the state, but the caucus seems to be tired of this fight.  

3. Another Nail in Local Newspapers’ Coffin

The vampire hedge fund Alden Capital — run by former Duke University placekicker Heath Freeman — has acquired Tribune Publishing, the newspaper chain that owns the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Virginian-Pilot, and the New York Daily News. This is a bad, bad day for journalism.

  • It’s a better day for the Baltimore Sun, which was spun off to a local nonprofit as part of the deal. 

  • Alden, which owns more than 200 papers across the country, purchases “distressed assets,” strips newsrooms to the bones (and then some), lays off staff, sells off real estate, and sucks every last dime out of its newspapers as they collapse into oblivion. That’s the model.