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Our Best Stuff on Online Discourse, Sports Gambling, and the Conservative Legal Movement
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Our Best Stuff on Online Discourse, Sports Gambling, and the Conservative Legal Movement

Plus: the lingering effects of schooling during the pandemic.

A general view of the race and sports book at the Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Hello and happy Sunday. I think I asked this last week, but have you checked out Techne, our new technology newsletter written by Will Rinehart? I ask again because earlier this week he wrote about our toxic social media discourse and how it’s driven by a small number of very loud voices. We’ve heard this before, but even when we know it’s true, it’s easy to forget when you’re watching stupid fights play out on Facebook or Twitter.

Will writes:

Most of what you see online … is often a loud, small, partisan minority. In turn, this group can misshape an individual’s perception of the general public, leading to the misconception that some beliefs are more common than they really are. Production inequality on the internet skews the discourse, making it seem as though the public is far more divided than it actually is.

If you’ll indulge me in a little trip down memory lane, my husband and I moved to the Cincinnati area back in 2005. We’d been living in Seattle for about eight years, and we enjoyed our time there. But the move to the Midwest brought us closer to family and afforded us considerably more and better housing options for our growing family. In addition to all that, I was also really looking forward to being able to get through social gatherings without a political debate breaking out. Seattle was (and still is!) very liberal, of course—but that didn’t bother me; I love a good, spirited conversation with smart people. No, I just got tired of every dinner party, girls’ night out, and backyard barbecue eventually turning into a political discussion. I just wanted to get back to my Midwestern roots and use those occasions to catch up on family and neighborhood goings-on and maybe talk about college football or how mediocre the Cincinnati Reds were going to be that year.

We definitely had a few good years of that. (And I cannot recall any time in the last nearly 20 years that politics has even come up at Thanksgiving dinner, much less ruined it.) But then social media came along.

In recent years, we’ve seen school board elections and tax levies all but decided on social media before Election Day. The English curriculum at the high school had never really been a point of contention until Moms for Liberty groups around the country started making noise about banning books with “inappropriate material.” And then all of a sudden our district was having a fight over whether In the Time of Butterflies, a work of historical fiction, was too salacious. (The book remained in the curriculum.)

I guess you can say our suburb has officially made it big, because we just weathered our first debate over a local independent bookstore hosting a Drag Queen Story Hour. My first reaction to the kerfuffle was, “Wait, we have a bookstore downtown?” (It’s pretty new.) Other members of the community were less cool-headed. Word got out, people complained on social media, and the owners of the bookstore held firm. But then the bookstore and the invited group were subject to threats of violence, so they ended up canceling. 

I’m not here to debate the merits vs. the potential harm of Drag Queen Story Hour. Our kids are well past the age of sitting criss-cross-applesauce on a rug while someone reads them a picture book. I’m here to lament that the debate played out entirely on social media, with the loudest and most extreme voices on either side dominating the conversation. A similar situation played out when our local brewery (coincidentally, right around the corner from the bookstore—we really do have a cool little downtown) rented its event space to Republican Senate candidate Bernie Moreno, who brought Kari Lake and Sen. J.D. Vance to town with him.

It’s a clear case of the “production inequality” that Will discusses in Techne. Our community feels more divided than ever after the last six or eight years of culture war fights. But it’s really just the same handful of cranky keyboard warriors who’ve taken the debates they see on cable news and social media and turned those national topics into local issues. I don’t know that there are any easy solutions to this thorny problem. But to start, as Will notes, “thoughtful folks of all stripes would benefit from internalizing the concept of the majority illusion.” 

Maybe I’ll head downtown sometime this week and stop by the new bookstore to check it out. And then I’ll walk over to the brewery, grab a beer, and strike up a conversation about the Reds.

It’s safe to say that I’m pretty immune to the temptations of sports gambling, or anything riskier than a game of Texas Hold ‘Em with friends. Lose a few hands of blackjack? That’s a new pair of shoes or a night of takeout for the family after a long day. But Kevin has been following the effects of the widespread legalization of sports gambling since the Supreme Court overturned federal prohibitions on it in 2019, and he doesn’t like what he sees. In this week’s Wanderland, he traced the path that Las Vegas has taken from pariah in the sports world to the host of Super Bowl LVIII in February. It’s a metaphor for the growing intermingling between gambling operations and major sports leagues. And while the rise in sports gambling may be benefiting the bottom lines of those leagues and some local governments, it has had profound negative consequences for a non-trivial number of individuals. More than 10 percent of college students are “probable pathological gamblers”—some gambling daily, some having lost up to $500 in a single day, taken in by ubiquitous apps. “Gambling operators offer their partners the same thing they offer their clients: the promise of free money,” Kevin wrote. “In both cases, the promise is a lie. Study after study has shown that legalized gambling is a terrible economic-development strategy for basically everywhere except Las Vegas—and even Vegas has understood the necessity of diversifying beyond gambling.”

“But judges” was a mantra of many conservatives who had major reservations about Donald Trump in 2016 but chose to support him anyway. Candidate Trump might have been a former Democrat “with a curious history of praising authoritarians” who indulged in illiberal rhetoric, but he promised to nominate Supreme Court justices from a list of reliable conservatives. And he did. The conservative legal movement that arose in the wake of the disappointing Nixon era could be happy with a solid majority on the Supreme Court, one that even overturned Roe v. Wade. But given how those justices handled Trump’s “stolen election” claims in late 2020 and early 2021, a second Trump term could result in a different crop of judicial nominees—ones who abandon traditional conservative ideals like originalism in favor of “common-good constitutionalism.” Gregg T. Nunziata called on the conservative legal movement to serve as a bulwark against this possibility by promoting federalism and emphasizing that the other branches of government need to carry out their constitutional roles. Because, as he wrote, “It would be deeply ironic, and the ultimate failure of the movement, if the ‘but judges’ bargain were to end with purportedly ‘conservative’ judges legislating from the bench.”

We all remember the long spring of 2020 when the pandemic closed schools around the country, and the uneven school years that followed—some districts refusing to return to in-person schooling, others opening and closing in fits and starts as the virus waxed and waned. We’ve heard about the damaging effects of learning loss. Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute remembers those days well: He tracked school openings and closures during the COVID years, collecting and analyzing reams of data. In this deeply reported and researched piece, he argued that the learning loss suffered during the pandemic was indeed substantial, but that progress is being made. In his view, the worst legacy of pandemic-era schooling is the chronic absenteeism. Truancy was a problem before COVID-19 showed up, yes, but the (understandable) emphasis on health and safety over education throughout that time created bad habits that have lingered. “Learning loss and chronic absenteeism are not simply a matter of lost instructional time or poor pandemic policy but of lower quality schooling and disrupted norms,” he wrote. “I have come to believe that our long COVID school problems are cultural problems—from within and from without. For years, schooling was not the No. 1 priority, safety was. School closures, lowered expectations, and absences were tolerable if they made us safer. There were strong messages that schools could be dangerous and that schooling could take a back seat to pandemic precautions.”

And here’s the best of the rest:

  • In Capitolism, Scott Lincicome brought a heavy dose of common sense in criticizing California’s new $20 hourly minimum wage for fast-food workers. He noted that such wage increases do little to alleviate poverty, actually reduce employment, and have all kinds of downstream effects like reduced benefits and scheduling flexibility.
  • Charlotte reported from Tel Aviv on the growing tension in Israel over the military exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many Haredim men, as the ultra-Orthodox are known, spend their days studying the Torah at subsidized yeshivas and view military service as a distraction. But the Israel Defense Forces need soldiers, and many Israelis are resentful over the seeming lack of shared sacrifice.
  • Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey might not have much of a chance to win reelection by running as an independent while facing an 18-count federal indictment for bribery and other charges. But his “campaign” allows him to use any funds he raises for legal fees. What? Peter Gattuso explained.
  • Judge Aileen Cannon, presiding over former President Trump’s classified documents case in Florida, has drawn the ire of special counsel Jack Smith for her request to both sides to provide proposed jury instructions. Her request is unusual for all kinds of reasons, as Mike explained in The Collision.
  • In the wake of the Israeli strike that accidentally killed seven humanitarian aid workers in Gaza—Israel has dismissed two senior officers in response—Jonah noted how we are too inclined to treat nations as people and how the Israel-Hamas war has led to a double standard. Critics don’t frame the tragedy as something IDF soldiers did, but as something that Israel did. Imagine the reaction, he wrote, if someone accused all Palestinians of raping teenagers or burning families on October 7.
  • On the pods: Is Israel complying with international law in its war against Hamas? On Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David welcomed three federal judges who just traveled to Israel—Roy Altman, Lee Rudofsky, and Amul Thapar—to look into that question. The Dispatch Podcast had a special guest this week, with Megan McArdle of the Washington Post joining Jonah, Kevin, and Mike for some rank punditry on topics ranging from the war in Israel to Florida’s abortion law. And on The Remnant, Karolina Hird joined Jonah to discuss Russia’s horrific deportation and forced adoption of Ukrainian children.

Rachael Larimore is managing editor of The Dispatch and is based in the Cincinnati area. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she served in similar roles at Slate, The Weekly Standard, and The Bulwark. She and her husband have three sons.