We’ve lost one of our best, a terrific journalist, teacher, and — most of all — human being.
I first knew Steve when we worked together in Kansas City in the mid to late 1980s. I was the newsroom nerd. Steve was anything but a nerd back then, but he was a great colleague and friend. He was my editor for a time, patient and encouraging and skillful at his craft.
Later, when the information ecosystem changed, so did he. Steve re-made himself as a journalist for the Digital Age. He saw amazing new potential for the craft if we used these new tools in smart ways, and was tireless in promoting the possibilities.
What never changed, and what will always be more important, was his essential kindness and integrity. He was a consummate family man, and a dear friend to so many. That’s truly what matters most in the end. Rest in peace, Steve.
Watching President Trump’s February 16th press conference, I felt stunned into silence. I could not think of how to comment on that performance. These notes are my attempt to figure out why. They are a departure from my usual writing: more speculative. I’m reaching for something here. Which means I could be wrong about some or maybe all of it. If I am, you will tell me.
1. Since the start of the Cold War 70 years ago, Americans have been aware of a crazy thing about the holder of the Presidency. That person could blow up the world. The possibility of nuclear annihilation changed the institution by introducing new psychological facts to the relationship between the American people and the occupant of the White House. And, we should add, between the publics of other nations and the American President. For this was a terrible power to invest in one man. (It has always been a man, which is part of the terror, so I will be using the masculine pronoun throughout.)
2. By giving the order, the American President could blow up the world — or at least Europe, North America, and Russia — and everyone at some level was aware of this. Which meant we had to have confidence that he wouldn’t do it, or we could never vote for him. There would be no time to go to Congress, or for any plebiscite. The power had to be entrusted to one man, and his reactions in the moment, as with Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. We didn’t have to trust Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln in that way. But from the Cold War on Americans have been required to extend to their president an almost inhuman degree of trust: don’t blow up the world, Mister President… Please!
3. It’s not possible to have a normal relationship with a mortal who obtains that kind of power. And yet the American President has to present himself as a “normal” person who has a very, very important job. Through successive governments since Truman the presidency has been adjusted to meet these conditions. How do you make people comfortable with the fact that the President is able to blow up the world? Or: how do you make them forget that he has this power? Well, you project an image of inner strength, measured calm, unflappable temperament. But that is just a start. In fact, the whole model of the modern presidency is affected by this demand to quiet a completely rational anxiety surrounding the president’s awesome, god-like and mostly unearned powers. In a word, the American presidency has to do psychological work. It has to reassure.
4. So how is this work done? Through a series of propositions that are implied in the behavior we expect of presidents, in the daily rituals of the job, and in the way the executive branch organizes itself. Here are a few of those propositions. (There are many more.)
* The President has access to the best intelligence in the world.
* The President starts his day with a classified briefing on all possible threats.
* The President is kept constantly informed.
* The President is never, even for a moment, “off the grid.”
* The President is never alone.
* The President is surrounded by people who know what they are doing.
* The President is of sound and sober mind. He does not easily “fly off the handle.”
* The President does not free associate, speak carelessly, or grant roaming privileges to his id.
* The President does not make factual statements that are wholly insupportable.
I’m not saying that these features of the modern Presidency don’t serve other ends. They do. But one of them is to make us feel okay with a man who gets to play god with our civilization.
5. Part of the psychological work the American presidency had to do was done through the media. Rituals like the televised news conference were supposed to show that the president was in command of the facts, and could handle challenges without losing his cool. Command of television in a speech or interview is one way that presidents show us they’re in command of themselves. That’s reassuring. That’s acting “presidential.”
6. Trump does not participate in this regime. He may have access to the best intelligence in the world, but he is at war with the intelligence community. The apparatus exists to keep him constantly informed, but he prefers to watch cable news, so that he can rage at his unfair treatment. He flies off the handle constantly. He makes threats. He free associates, speaks carelessly, and grants roaming privileges to his world class id. He doesn’t care if what he’s saying is true. When a reporter at his February 16 press conference told him his facts were wrong, he shrugged and said, “I was given that information; I don’t know… I’ve seen that information around.” That is the opposite of reassuring.
7. Trump is thus revising the Presidency before our eyes. In his grip, it no longer attempts to muffle anxiety about the President and make people around the world feel okay about granting one person such enormous, unthinkable and inhuman powers. Instead, a new model is proposed: the president keeps everyone in a constant state of excitement and alarm. He moves fast and breaks things. He leads by causing commotion. As energy in the political system rises he makes no effort to project calm or establish an orderly White House. And if he keeps us safe it’s not by being himself a safe, steady, self-controlled figure, but by threatening opponents and remaining brash and unpredictable— maybe a touch crazy. This too is psychological work, but of a different kind.
8. Remember: the launch codes are with him at all times. We are supposed to not think about that. Since Truman, the Presidency has been styled to help us with the forgetting. Donald Trump is busy blowing that up. But how do we surface this story?
This evening I saw news that a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis had been vandalized overnight. Reports say that more than 100 headstones were damaged, with some substantial number toppled. This comes, as you may know, amidst an ongoing wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers across the country. To date, thankfully, all have been hoaxes. Police have yet to make a formal determination about whether this vandalism was a hate crime. Whatever the final determination, though, this incident hits very close to home. Because this is the cemetery where my mother was buried after she died in Southern California in 1981.
Mark Zuckerberg’s 6,000-word manifesto on the future of Facebook begins with a capsule narration of human achievement. “History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers,” Zuckerberg writes, “from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”
The Facebook CEO does not explicitly add his social network to that list of social infrastructure, but the rest of the letter makes clear that he wants to see it on there, and soon. “Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community,” he argues, and “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.”
There has, in recent months, been growing speculation about the role Zuckerberg wants to play in the world. Quartz, for instance, has published a 4,000-word story imagining Zuckerberg’s successful campaign for the presidency, as well as a checklist of things Zuckerberg would need to do to run for president in 2020. The Atlantic has suggested that the groundwork is already being laid.
But with this manifesto, Zuckerberg is articulating an ambition that is in some ways grander than the US presidency: he wants to use Facebook as the platform on which to build a global civil society, creating a service that encourages communities and cooperation and political participation on a transnational scale. He frames national governments as merely one piece of “social infrastructure,” and suggests that the world might need something to push beyond their limits. He wants Facebook to help humanity take its “next step.”
But to do that, he’ll need to make some changes to Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg’s theory of human history
The beginning of Zuckerberg’s letter is less an argument about Facebook than it is an argument about the organizing principles of human progress. “History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers,” he writes. The theory reads as heavily informed by the book Sapiens, which Zuckerberg has recommended on, well, Facebook.
Sapiens, which is written by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari, is a mind-bending look at why and how homo sapiens took over the earth. It begins by establishing our species’ lowly beginnings. “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish,” Harari writes.
So what changed? Humans learned how to cooperate, and nothing else did. But cooperation, Harari emphasizes, is no easy task. The basic way humans form and sustain groups is by using language to tell common stories about their community — gossip, in other words. But he cites research suggesting that “the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals.” Harari continues:
How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
The key word there is “common.” For the purpose of human cooperation, the issue isn’t whether people believe true things, or good things, but whether enough of them believe the same things. Human beings — through stories, through religion, and eventually through governments, laws, and political ideologies — create common understandings of reality that provide the basis for massive, evolutionarily unprecedented levels of cooperation. And that’s why humans dominate the earth.
Which brings us back to Zuckerberg.
Humanity’s “next step”: a “global community”
Zuckerberg believes its time for humanity to take its “next step,” and he thinks Facebook can play a crucial role in it. Here’s the crucial section:
Today we are close to taking our next step. Our greatest opportunities are now global -- like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses -- like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.
This is especially important right now. Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial. Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.
This is a time when many of us around the world are reflecting on how we can have the most positive impact. I am reminded of my favorite saying about technology: "We always overestimate what we can do in two years, and we underestimate what we can do in ten years." We may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today. In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.
As I understand it, Zuckerberg argues that the story of human history is the story of ever-more cooperation on an ever-greater scale. We went, he writes, “from tribes to cities to nations.” The next step is to become a “global community.”
The same forces making the global community possible also imperil it. Our myths are becoming less common. Our governments are losing the trust of their citizens. We don’t just lack the institutions necessary to make global cooperation possible. We are watching the institutions that make national cooperation possible fail.
Facebook, to Zuckerberg’s dismay, is playing a part in that failure. “Giving everyone a voice has historically been a very positive force for public discourse because it increases the diversity of ideas shared,” he writes. “But the past year has also shown it may fragment our shared sense of reality.”
This is inimical to the driving force of human progress. It is a shared sense of reality that permits widespread cooperation. If Facebook, globalization, and other trends are leading to fragmented realities, then they are impeding that crucial cooperation — they are standing in the way of humanity’s next step.
This puts Facebook, and Zuckerberg at a crossroads. Merely making the world “more open and connected” turns out to be insufficient, and in some contexts, dangerous. An open and connected world can become an angry, fractured world. For the global community Zuckerberg sees as humanity’s next step to manifest, all that openness and connectivity need to be guided towards common understandings and cooperation.
Can Facebook reinvent itself as a platform for global community?
The task Zuckerberg is setting for Facebook is nothing less than building a platform atop which a truly global civil society can flourish. In a section that could have been lifted from Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s famed look at the decline of civic society in America, Zuckerberg writes:
In our society, we have personal relationships with friends and family, and then we have institutional relationships with the governments that set the rules. A healthy society also has many layers of communities between us and government that take care of our needs. When we refer to our "social fabric", we usually mean the many mediating groups that bring us together and reinforce our values.
However, there has been a striking decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities over the past few decades. Since the 1970s, membership in some local groups has declined by as much as one-quarter, cutting across all segments of the population.
For all the talk of whether Zuckerberg aspires to make Facebook a quasi-governmental entity, or whether he hopes to use it to launch himself into leadership of an actual government, what he’s outlining here is a vision that would make Facebook the primary platform mediating those “many layers of communities between us and government” — but on a global scale.
There’s no perfect analogue for what Zuckerberg is proposing, but it’s closest to the role that major religions have played throughout history. Facebook is to become an organizing space where you meet people, engage with your neighbors and your world, organize to make changes in your community, relax with people like yourself, and receive information that helps you participate in government. And like religions — but unlike virtually any other organizing force in human history — Facebook is truly, intrinsically, global.
But if Facebook is to play that role, then like a religion, Facebook will have to develop views on what it means to live well and responsibly. And in this document, Zuckerberg begins to do that.
“Going forward, we will measure Facebook's progress with groups based on meaningful groups, not groups overall,” he writes. He promises that Facebook will begin pulling away away from “passive consumption” and towards “strengthening social connections.” He doesn’t give much guidance on what this will mean, but the signal is clear: Facebook wants to start making more distinctions between worthy ways of spending time on the platform — ways that create real social bonds and cooperation — and less worthy ones.
Zuckerberg worries about fake news, but professes even more concern that the media is overly sensationalized, that it “rewards simplicity and discourages nuance,” and he promises that Facebook is working to surface more “good in-depth content” as well as “additional perspectives and information.”
Then he goes further than that, suggesting that Facebook will become crucial not just to learning about politics, but participating in it. He says that in the 2016 US election, Facebook’s voter registration program “was larger than those of both major parties combined,” and suggests that Facebook could “enable hundreds of millions of more people to vote in elections than do today, in every democratic country around the world.”
Will Zuckerberg succeed in all, or any, of this? I have no idea. Skepticism is surely in order. Leaning hard into these ambitions might prove dangerous to Facebook’s advertising business, or create room for a competitor that gives people what they want, rather than what they should want. The harder Facebook pushes to curate media content, or to generate political participation, the greater the threat certain governments will perceive from its presence.
On the other hand, just making gentle tweaks in service of these ambitions probably won’t achieve them. In that case, this document will just be words, and Facebook will continue on its current path — a wildly profitable one, yes, but one that will often make it a force for division and confusion, and that will frequently put it crosswise with its founder’s hopes for humanity.
Which is all to say, Zuckerberg harbors awesome ambitions — much grander than merely making the world “more open and connected.” He wants Facebook to be the platform for much broader swaths of human life than governments typically drive, and he is thinking far beyond the borders of any single country.
But to do that, he has to move Facebook beyond being a neutral platform and tie it to an idea of where humanity can and should go next. Religions do this. Political parties do this. National governments do this. And now Facebook is doing it, too. What Zuckerberg is offering here isn’t a business plan so much as it’s a philosophy or an ideology. But philosophies and ideologies are harder and more dangerous to follow than business plans.
Zuckerberg ends with a quote from Abraham Lincoln — a leader who governed in a time of division that makes this era seem a model of comity and calm. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, act anew."
Byron Dorgan spent 30 years representing North Dakota in Congress — 18 years in the Senate and 12 in the House. And there’s one constituent he thinks of when people ask how ordinary people can effectively lobby their representatives. She was a determined woman whose fight to help her son eventually changed how American health insurance works.
Dorgan told me this story a few weeks ago, when I was working on a piece about the Affordable Care Act’s ban on lifetime limits in health insurance. Next week, as legislators return to their districts for recess and town halls, his advice might prove especially relevant. As David Leonhardt writes for the New York Times, those meetings will be “a chance for people to make clear the actual stakes in the health care debate.”
I initially reached out to the former North Dakota senator because I had heard from a former Senate staffer, John McDonough, that Dorgan was the driving force behind the push to ban lifetime limits. Before the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans capped medical benefits at $1 million or $2 million. I wanted to understand how Dorgan became so passionate about ending those caps.
The answer was surprisingly simple: A constituent bothered him about the topic. Repeatedly.
“I used to use her as an example of how to be effective at lobbying Congress,” Dorgan, now a senior policy adviser at law firm Arent Fox, says. “She caught my attention, I cared about it, and it became personal.”
The woman was named Brenda Neubauer. Her son Jack has hemophilia, a blood disease that requires regular injections of an expensive blood clotting agent. The medication cost $30,000 each month.
Jack was in elementary school when he capped out of his dad’s (Neubauer’s ex-husband’s) health plan, which had a $1 million limit. He switched to his mom’s plan, which had a $2 million ceiling. By age 12, he was already halfway through that second policy. Neubauer estimated her son would run out of benefits by time he turned 16.
She started to write letters to the editor in the mid-2000sand attended Dorgan’s events, where she would ask about the issue.
“We formed a relationship,” Neubauer says of Dorgan. “When he would come to Bismarck, he started stopping by my law office. Then I started going to Capitol Hill, and I would bring books and books full of pictures of my son, and we would just meet with anybody we could.”
What made Neubauer effective, Dorgan says, was two things: She was persistent, and she made the issue personal. She would bring along her medical bills, photographs of Jack, and sometimes Jack himself. She was trying to make it clear that there was a tangible problem — one that was affecting her son at that very moment — and that Congress could solve it.
“She stood up at several meetings, and then she came back to DC with her son, who was a high school student,” he says. “She brought sample invoices of the bills they had to pay.”
All of Neubauer’s work made the issue very real to Dorgan. Before that, he hadn’t even known that a lot of insurance plans capped benefits. “I thought if you were insured, you were insured,” he says. Afterward, he became an advocate.
Dorgan’s story is a potent reminder: Citizen input does matter, and it can shape the issues senators choose to prioritize on Capitol Hill.