Podcast / Start Making Sense / Dec 14, 2023

Democrats Are Sleepwalking Toward a Trump Victory; Plus Israel’s Future

On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, Harold Meyerson points to polls making it clear that Biden should not run again, and David N. Myers analyzes politics after Netanyahu.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Democrats are Sleepwalking Toward a Trump Victory; plus Israel’s future | Start Making Sense with Jon Wiener
byThe Nation Magazine

Joe Biden has historic achievements as president, but polls show him to be the candidate least able to defeat Donald Trump in the 2024 election. Democrats need someone else to run and an open primary. Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect, and he joins the show to make the case for Biden to not run again.

Also on this episode: What conditions are needed for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank? David Myers – professor of Jewish history at UCLA and contributor to the LA Times, the Forward, and the Atlantic – is on the podcast to comment on what it would take to get to Palestinian self-determination.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in New York on September 20, 2023.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in New York on September 20, 2023.

(Avi Ohayon / GPO / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Joe Biden has historic achievements as president, but polls show him to be the candidate least able to defeat Donald Trump in the 2024 election. Democrats need someone else to run and an open primary. Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect, and he joins the show to make the case for Biden to not run again.

Also on this episode: What conditions are needed for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank? David N. Myers—professor of Jewish history at UCLA and contributor to the Los Angeles Times, The Forward, and The Atlantic—is on the podcast to comment on what it would take to get to Palestinian self-determination.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Politics After the Assassination Attempt | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Will the assassination attempt change Trump’s campaign—make it more a call for unity and less a demand for retribution? Harold Meyerson reports on the evidence from the Republican National Convention.

Also: The Nation’s Joan Walsh has been following Kamala Harris for months, as she campaigns for Biden — but also provides evidence of her own potential as a presidential candidate.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show: What conditions are needed for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blocking of Palestinian self-determination? David Myers will comment. He teaches Jewish history at UCLA, and he’s written for the LA Times, the Forward and The Atlantic. But first: Democrats are ignoring some ominous new polls. Harold Meyerson will explain in a minute.


The Democrats are sleepwalking towards disaster in the 2024 election. That’s what Harold Meyerson says. He’s editor-at-large of The American Prospect. We reached him today in our nation’s capital. Harold, welcome back.

Harold Meyerson: Always good to be here, Jon.

JW: A string of recent polls has shown Trump leading Joe Biden, but there’s a new poll that should have all of us especially frightened. It’s a survey that includes Democratic base voters, conducted by Democracy Corps–that’s a Democratic advisory group founded by Stan Greenberg and James Carville.  It surveyed voters in presidential and senate battleground states, as well as competitive house districts. Tell us what it found.

HM: Well, what it found was pretty alarming. It was that Biden is trailing Donald Trump in the specific demographics that make up most of the Democratic base. That is to say, young people, racial minorities, not Asians, but other racial minorities, and single mothers and college women and the LGBTQ community. So, if he’s trailing there, that is very bad news.

JW: This was on approval ratings on different issues, and the issues were much broader than the cost-of-living. Let me just list some of the other questions and the answers they found. “Which president will not be an autocrat?” Biden wins, but only by two points among Democratic base voters. “Which candidate would do better at protecting democracy?” Biden beats Trump by one point. “Which president will make democracy more secure?” A tie between Biden and Trump. “Who will do better at protecting the Constitution?” That one, Trump beats Biden by eight points. This is among young people, single women, people of color, gay people. How could that be?

HM: Well, that could be for a number of reasons. What the Democracy Corps poll made very clear was that when it asked those people, “What is the issue most concerning you?” The number one issue by a huge margin among all of those groups was cost-of-living inflation. About 60% identified as a single issue most concerned about. Then of course, each group varied as to what was the second-ranking issue they were most concerned about, be it crime or climate change or what have you. But there was a variable 30 percentage point gap between the cost-of-living issue and the second ranking issue. That is a lot of people trying to deal with rent, or housing generally, and the cost of food.

JW: There’s another poll before this one, a New York Times poll, that asked voters about a race without Biden. Well, Biden in that poll was four points behind Trump. An unnamed Democratic candidate had an eight-point lead beating Trump 48 to 40%. What do you make of that?

HM: What I made of that went into my writing that I think other candidates would be stronger than Biden running against Trump. Even though I think Biden has been, given the cards he was dealt, a very good president. But one of the things I wrote that got the most positive response was that Biden doesn’t seem capable of making the case for, I think, the policies on which a Democrat could win, making them forcefully or even audibly. I got a lot of response to the word audibly. When people think of Joe Biden as old, I think his voice actually suggests old more than his appearance or anything else. The age issue compounds, I think, an inability to make a really forceful case – compounds the case for getting another Democrat in the race. Now, let’s acknowledge that a generic political figure invariably polls better than an actual, existing, particular political figure who can be attacked rightly or wrongly for all manners of things, as a generic abstraction cannot be.

JW: There was one piece of good news in this Democracy Corps poll. It found that Democratic candidates in house battleground districts are running two points ahead of their Republican opponents among voters who say they are likely to cast ballots on election day. So this once again does not seem to be a problem of Democrats, it seems to be very specific: Joe Biden.

HM: Absolutely. Most of those folks don’t have to deal with the age issue. They don’t have to deal with being seen as responsible for an administration, which most Americans unfortunately, but this is the case, identify with a period of inflation and high costs. Those particular albatrosses are not around their neck, and unfortunately, they are around Joe Biden’s neck.

JW: There was one other fascinating finding in this poll. An unnamed Democratic candidate beats Trump 46 to 40. What about an unnamed Republican candidate? Somebody other than Trump running against Biden? The finding was the Republican candidate would beat Biden 48 to 37. So, an unnamed Democrat easily beats Trump. An unnamed Republican easily beats Biden. What do you make of that?

HM: Well, what I make of that is that most Americans clearly have not warmed to a choice between just, it comes down to Joe Biden and Donald Trump. They see both as flawed. I think a lot of the reasoning behind thinking Joe Biden is flawed, is itself flawed. But there it is, and it’s a reality I think that Democrats have to grapple with. I’m not suggesting that things would be easy on a road to nominating someone other than Joe Biden. I am saying that if Biden comes to the Democratic convention next summer with the polling still looking like this, that is going to be one glum looking convention.

JW: Now, Democrats have tried to explain why we shouldn’t worry about these poll results too much. They say polls a year out aren’t really that reliable. A lot is going to happen in the next year.

HM: That’s certainly true.

JW: They say once Biden starts to campaign, he’ll do better in the polls. He’ll focus on his achievements. They say once people see Trump in action in the campaign, they will be repulsed by him and reject him. What do you think of those arguments?

HM: I think some of them are good, particularly seeing more of Trump will only help Biden or any Democrat running for office. But you have to put Biden’s polling in a broader context of the public’s sentiment about how the country is doing, about the economy and so on. This is a rather depressed public that is looking for some kind of change. Biden can be many things that are positive, but he’s not exactly the best candidate to personify change. That’s why I think the Democrats would do well to go elsewhere, and in particular, outside of Washington to a governor or someone like that.

JW: There is one Democrat who agrees with you on this and who is challenging Joe Biden in the New Hampshire primary. His name is Dean Phillips. He’s a congressman from suburban Minneapolis. He has said his goal is he doesn’t think he’s going to be president of the United States since nobody’s ever heard of him except in Wayzata and St. Louis Park, but he does hope that people who don’t want Biden to be president anymore will vote for him in the Democratic primary. He recalls that in 1968, a little-known Democratic senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, ran against LBJ on an anti-war platform in New Hampshire, got almost 50%, and two weeks later, LBJ announced he was withdrawing from his own reelection campaign to focus on bringing peace to Vietnam. I believe you know something about the Gene McCarthy parallel.

HM: I do. That was my first campaign involvement, I was-

JW: You were about five years old at the time.

HM: Yes. I was 18. L.A high schools had mid-year graduation, so I had the whole first half of 1968 free. I spent it as someone working on Gene McCarthy’s campaign. At that point, this was an issue of policy. This was the Vietnam war, had divided the Democratic Party and much of the country as well. Right now, although there is a potential that Israel-Palestine could be a real rift in the Democratic Party, it is, but I think it’s obviously less intense than a war that America is directly involved in. The anxieties about Biden aren’t really so much on policy, possible exception of the Middle East, as they are on his chances of defeating Donald Trump. It is frankly much more important for the future of the country to defeat Donald Trump than it was in 1968 to defeat even a scoundrel like Richard Nixon, who for whatever his flaws, was in terms of policy, a largely mainstream Republican, somewhat in the Eisenhower mode, and wasn’t really going to an authoritarian rule.

JW: Let’s suppose that Dean Phillips succeeds, that he comes close. He gets a lot of votes in New Hampshire, and this persuades Biden to step aside. Let’s just imagine that. What happens then? This is in February.

HM: First of all, Biden isn’t on the New Hampshire ballot because it didn’t get the permission from the Democratic National Committee. So Biden’s vote has to be a write-in vote. That’s a complication in and of itself. But certainly there are people who have been raising their hands just in case he decided not to run. Obviously, the vice president, Kamala Harris, would clearly, I think at that juncture, enter the race. So would Gavin Newsom, who has been very prominent in saying not, ‘I’m running this year, but I’m next.’ Hopefully some other folks who I think are more electable than Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris, like Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

JW: Let us suppose just pursuing this hypothetical for another minute, Gavin Newsom defeats Kamala Harris in the remaining primaries. Let’s recall, Kamala Harris did run in the 2020 election, and did so poorly that she withdrew before the Iowa caucuses. So she got zero votes the last time she ran for president. Let’s assume she doesn’t do very well this time and is defeated by Gavin Newsom or some other white person, isn’t this going to hurt votes among the base voters who are Black?

HM: It may. It may. On the other hand, I think Gavin Newsom would be particularly weak in winning working class votes. He’s been able to do a lot in California, and California has been able to move, certainly on social issues and some economic issues, a progressive agenda. But in part because California has the smallest share of white working-class residents of any state except Hawaii, which has never had a white majority. I think Gavin Newsom’s affect, for lack of a better term, does not play well, really would not play well with working class voters of any race. I think he exudes a kind of nouveau elite in his identity and many of his achievements, that’s not necessarily going to make him that strong a candidate. Which is why I think a ticket of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, who is African American, would be about as strong as the Democrats could come on with in 2024.

JW: Gretchen Whitmer and Raphael Warnock in 2024: Harold Meyerson, he’s editor-at-large of The American Prospect. Harold, thanks for talking with us today.

HM: Always good to be here, Jon.


Jon Wiener: As the Israeli military continues its war in Gaza, we need to ask how we got here and what we need to do to achieve significant long-term change. For a look at the big picture, we turn to David Myers. He teaches Jewish history at UCLA where he serves as director of the Luskin Center for History and Policy and the Initiative to Study Hate. He’s written for the LA Times Op-Ed page, The Forward and The Atlantic. We reached him today at home in LA. David Myers, welcome to the program.

David Myers: Thank you, Jon. So nice to be with you.

JW: We’re speaking on Tuesday, December 12th. It’s 67 days after the October 7th attacks by Hamas, which killed 1,200 Israelis. As of today, the Israelis have killed more than 18,000 Palestinians, the great majority of whom are women and children, and there are almost two million homeless people in Gaza. What is your assessment of where we’re at right now?

DM: Well, Jon, I think it’d be hard to say anything other than in a dreadful, terrible situation.  And I would enumerate the reasons why as follows: First, this seems to me to be a war with no achievable goal. If the declared goal is the elimination of Hamas, that seems to be something that could be achieved–if Israel were willing to commit three years and countenance hundreds of thousands of dead. I don’t think that’s going to happen. And therefore, the declared aim is unrealizable. In addition to which there’s no plan for the day after on the part of the Israelis, having essentially displaced the entire population of Gaza. There’s no plan for what will happen when the war ends. All of that is really secondary to the principal concern, which is the enormous destruction, the loss of life on a monumental scale, injuries on a monumental scale, and the razing of much of Gaza.

Such that after the war ends – and God willing, it should end very soon – there will be no place for those who’ve been displaced to the south of Gaza to return. They will return to simply scorched earth. And all of that leads to what I think is the most worrisome outcome of the conflict to this point, which is that if there were limited political horizons prior to October 7th, there are fewer today. What this latest cycle of violence shows, and I think it is appropriate to call it a cycle of violence, this latest cycle of violence seems to have deepened entrenched enmity and a sense of the impossibility of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. I think at some point there will be another day and there may be another possibility for a world in which there is not ceaseless enmity and cycles of violence, but it does seem far off.

JW: And briefly, how did we get here? Some point to the occupation of 1967, not only because of the military rule, but to the rise of the ultra-orthodox settler movement that began shortly after that.  Some point in 1948 and the Nakba and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, and the assumption that they would just go away and that would be the end of it. How do you answer the question how did we get here?

DM: Yeah, I mean, yes and yes. I think the two dates you mentioned are highly relevant. There are contextual circles in which we need to place this conflict. I would go even further back to the late 19th century to the origins of the Zionist movement and the Zionist project of national liberation for Jews, which brought Jewish settlers from Europe to Palestine. And shortly after their arrival, certainly by the early 20th century, there were tensions over control and ownership of the land. Those tensions developed in the ’20s and ’30s into violent clashes between Jews and Arabs, leading up to 1948, which was a year that marked the divergence in the lived experiences and narratives of the two peoples. They ran in parallel but in reverse directions. So in the case of the Zionist or the Jewish settlers in Palestine, the movement was from exile to homeland. Whereas for the Palestinians, the movement was from homeland to exile.

And there I think you already can see sort of the enormous tension between these two peoples, these two lived experiences. And I do have to add one important point about 1948. I think it wasn’t just a clash between national aspirations, a clash between two groups of people that had been locked in struggle over the land for half a century. It is also a clash between two enormous national or collective traumas. For the Jews, the trauma of the Holocaust, which created such a sense of existential urgency and such a belief in the imperative to win this war and to brand the opponent as the incarnation of Nazism. In the case of the Palestinians, the outcome of the war was the catastrophe, the Nakba.  And those two tensions of the Holocaust and the Nakba have continually intersected over the course of the past 75 years. And I think we saw how dramatic that clash was on October 7th, when the scenes of massacre triggered in many Israeli Jews a recollection of the worst days in Jewish history, including in the Holocaust.

I think we have to add to this just a couple of other important contextual circles. You mentioned 1967, the six-day war, which began Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the displacement of more Palestinians in that conflict, and then Israel’s control over the West Bank. And since 2005, Gaza; and after 2005, after the withdrawal of Israeli settlers, Israel has maintained a tight security cordon around Gaza. So ’67 is certainly important to the story, but I think we also have to include maybe the narrowest contextual circle. And that is the long Netanyahu decade, the long rule of Benjamin Netanyahu that began in 2009. This was the second time he served as Prime Minister, but he’s essentially served as Prime Minister from 2009 to the present with the exception of one year. And the last election, the last of five elections that took place within two or three years, gave Netanyahu a very narrow coalition or very narrow path to retaining political power.

That was on November 1st, 2022. He was required or felt the need to join forces with far-right religious Zionist forces and forged a coalition that immediately set out upon a path of diminishing even further institutions of democracy in Israel. That produced a tremendous pushback on the part of the Israeli population that led to public protests that lasted for 40 weeks, in the course of which the country was divided even further.  The army and security services were diminished by virtue of the fact that reservists said they would not serve under a regime that was threatening democracy. And Netanyahu all the while maintained his objective: to exert ever greater control over Palestinian Territories in the West. Macon gave freehand to violent settlers to try to displace even further Palestinians. So the developments of the past year or so from January 2023 are very important to helping us understand why Israel was so unprepared for the heinous attack of October 7th, and also helps us understand where we are now.

JW: And what are the short-term prospects for a ceasefire? We had a ceasefire. We had an exchange of prisoners and hostages. They say now that Netanyahu wants to keep the war going at least into January and maybe longer.  They say Biden may at some point stop being supportive of this war. What’s your assessment?

DM: My assessment is that the moral and political costs will become ever higher, impelling the United States and Biden to tell Netanyahu that it’s over, that enough destruction has been done. But I’ve been saying that for weeks, so I don’t know how much confidence I have in my judgment.  What seems clear is that Netanyahu does have a good deal of interest in keeping the war going–because the minute it ends, his day of reckoning will come for the failure to heed the various reports that were delivered, calling attention to the possibility of a Hamas attack. But it’s hard for me to believe that this could go on for longer than a month.

So I’m going to say that my strong hope is that Biden will heed the call of so many around the world and make that call to Netanyahu sometime this month. I mean, every day that goes by is just another tragedy leading to the loss of the lives of innocent people and especially children. And I think we need to be calling for and doing all within our power to call for an immediate ceasefire. I think the political costs and the moral demands will begin to exert themselves at some point. It’d be hard for me to believe that this goes much into January, and at that point, the really, really hard work begins. Because as I said, Israel has no real plan for what to do and the options are bad.

JW: The day after the October 7th attacks, you wrote an op-ed in The LA Times.  You said Israel needs to understand that the Palestinians are not going to surrender their claims to self-determination. They’re not going to give up the fight against what you call ‘the dehumanizing occupation,’ which has now lasted for 56 years. So let me put it this way: what conditions are needed for serious long-term change in this stalemate?

DM: Yeah, I mean, one thing that I said in that op-ed, Jon, was that the current paradigm is clearly broken, and that paradigm involves these periodic and increasingly violent cycles of violence. It also includes corrupt and ineffective political leadership. So I think what we need to do is break out of the current paradigm. It’s hard to imagine we can do that with the current crop of political leaders. I’m thinking of the Hamas leadership, the leadership of Mahmud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, and the Netanyahu regime. So I think we have to not only look forward to, but do all we can within our power to urge those in a position to make a difference, to bring us a different crop of political leaders. It seems very hard to imagine another day that looks any different from the current day with this group.

I also think that the two sides are not capable at this moment of resolving anything between themselves. And this leads me to conclude that if we want to build a new paradigm, it will require substantial third-party intervention. And that would require, alongside that intervention, a kind of recalibration of American attitudes towards the conflict. The United States has cited almost uniformly and unequivocally with Israel, and Biden’s visit to Tel Aviv to assert his Zionist bona fides left a very deep impression in Israel. It would’ve been all the better if he then made his way to Gaza City and affirmed his deep commitment to addressing the injustice and the deferred aspirations of Palestinians for so many years. That would’ve been, I think, a brilliant political move that could have transformed this terrible situation, could have provided us with a new model. That’s what’s going to have to happen. The United States is going to have to say, together with I think Arab allies in the Middle East, that we need a new paradigm. It’s going to require our shared intervention, the United States and Arab states, and it’s going to require massive investment.

JW: Let’s talk about that massive investment. You called for a new Marshall Plan. We mentioned that there are nearly 2 million homeless people. Nearly the entire population of Gaza has no place to live right now. How would that work? What would it look like?

DM: Well, the logic of it is that we can’t tinker around the edges anymore. We can’t slide the Palestinian question onto the medium burner, not the front burner, and then push it back when it suits us politically. This issue must be addressed frontally, or I regret to say we’re going to see more instances akin to October 7th. Again, this is not in any way, shape, or form a justification of that kind of heinous violence, which I condemn unequivocally. But unless we change the factors at work in the conflict, violence is going to continue. To change things requires not a little bit of money, but a lot of money. To really lift up in a sustained way the economic condition of Palestinians in the West Bank, and particularly in Gaza, who live in dense, crowded conditions without much prospect of a better life for their children.

It requires a tremendous amount of wisdom, courage, and audacity to do what I suggest. But it seems to me a wise investment given what the alternatives are. So what I’m talking about is really massive investment in Palestine, massive economic investment in Palestine led by the United States and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, together with the articulation of clear political horizons with achievable goals. And that is maybe the harder part than encouraging the various third parties to provide that massive investment–because what are we left with? The existing paradigms seem to be two states or one state, both of which have been widely discredited. But I think this is a period of time in which we have to push towards greater political imagination in imagining what exists between two and one. And that kind of thinking will and must be part of this huge investment of resources in raising up the economic status of Palestinians.

JW: And what groups in Israel now are leading in that kind of thinking? The United States needs allies in Israel. I know historically Peace Now has been the big group advocating for a Palestinian state. Tell us about the left-wing landscape right now.

DM: In the current environment, there are a couple of categories of groups that are doing essential work. The first category is groups that bring together Arabs and Jews. And I’m thinking of the great organizing movement Standing Together. It’s a group of Israeli Palestinians, Palestinian Israelis and Israeli Jews, which is committed to organizing, grassroots organizing, on behalf of the ideals of justice equality for all. And they have proven to be enormously effective in doing so, in fighting against violence against women, in calling for a cessation of hostilities between Jews and Arabs in mixed Israeli cities in May 2021. And even in the current environment where there’s such tension, Standing Together has been really at the forefront of holding together the diverse communities of Israel. So they’re really doing the Lord’s work, as are groups like the Parents Circle and Combatants for Peace–Parents Circle, which brings together Palestinian and Jewish victims of violence or their relatives.

JW: Say a little bit about Combatants for Peace.

DM: Combatants for Peace brings together former fighters from the two sides who recognize the futility of continuing this current paradigm of cyclical violence. And the stories told by these former combatants is extraordinarily compelling. That together with Parent Circle constitute the world that was recreated so brilliantly by the Irish American author Colum McCann in his book Apeirogon, which I recommend to all of your listeners. 

The second category that’s quite relevant to the intermediate and longer-term prospects are groups like Mitvim, which is a think tank that imagines a different foreign policy for Israel, one that doesn’t ignore or disregard the Palestinian problem but places it at the center of its vision. And another really important group that I think has become even more significant in recent months called A Land for All.  It’s a group that engages in precisely that kind of political imagination that I mentioned by calling for a confederation.  That is to say it’s an organization that believes in the principle of two states with several modifications on the classic two state ideal, like an open border which allows for Israeli citizens, overwhelming Jewish, to dwell in a State of Palestine, and Palestinian citizens of a State of Palestine to live in a state of Israel. There are lots of issues and details to still be figured out, but that’s the kind of imagination and new thinking that I think we need, in so far as it collapses the seeming dichotomy between an ideal of absolute separation, which many want and yet is impossible and not particularly supportive of economic growth, for example, and the principle of integration in the form of a single state of all citizens, which after October 7th seems to be a non-starter for most Israelis.

The beauty of A Land for All is it sort of collapses the distinction between separation and integration in a format that is known–two states–but modifies it significantly. That’s the kind of new thinking that I think we need to support. Whether we support that particular ideal or some modification thereof, we need to avoid what is the death knell to this conflict, which is stasis, a sense of stasis and just no political horizon. So these are some of the groups that I think are doing work that we should be paying attention to.

JW: And I know you’ve been a leader of the New Israel Fund. Where do they fit into this constellation?

DM: Yeah, the New Israel Fund has been the supporter, the financial supporter of almost all of the NGOs on the progressive side of the Israeli civil society landscape and is a supporter of many of the organizations that we’ve talked about. NAF has been there, is there, and will continue to be there.

JW: David Myers: his essay, The Hamas Attack Tore Off Israel’s Veneer of Invincibility: Is There a Sustainable Path Forward? appeared in The LA Times the day after the October 7th attack by Hamas. David, thanks for talking with us today.

DM: Thanks so much for having me, Jon.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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