Michael Gerson

Washington, D.C.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. He is the author of “Heroic Conservatism” (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody, 2010). He appears regularly on the “PBS NewsHour,” “Face the Nation” and other programs. Gerson serves as senior adviser at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speechwriting and assistant to the president for speechwriting and policy adviser.
  • Books by Michael Gerson:
  • City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
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  • Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't)
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Recent Articles

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 16, 2021, and thereafter

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- The recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to pause use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine -- citing six women who developed serious blood clots in their brains after vaccination -- could hardly have come at a worse time.

This news arrived just as vaccination eligibility was opening up and a whole new tranche of people were making the decision to either get or refuse the stick of a needle. Nearly half the eligible population has received at least one injection. Uptake is still limited by vaccine supply in many places. But as public health authorities try to reach the country's second half -- or at least enough to reach herd immunity -- they will eventually be recruiting along a descending path of public enthusiasm. And any news that heightens the impression of risk makes their task harder.

As someone who received the Pfizer vaccine, it is easy for me to say that fears about the Johnson & Johnson version are exaggerated. But they are exaggerated. Your chances of getting this side effect are literally one in a million. The CDC's and FDA's seriousness about screening for even a minuscule level of risk should encourage confidence in the overall vaccination system. And the vast majority of shots in American arms have been with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which have not displayed this side effect. There really is no cause for public panic.

It is the "almost" that creates problems. Taking these vaccines involves the chance of a temporary fever, headaches and muscle aches. It involves a very remote risk of more serious complications. And this raises the unavoidable problem of free riders.

Free riders are people who benefit from the public good but don't have to pay or sacrifice for it. In the case of a pandemic, free riders are those who enjoy the positive result when other people get vaccinated -- lower transmission of the virus and eventual herd protection -- but refuse to take a tiny risk and get vaccinated themselves. The challenge comes, of course, when lots of people realize they can be free riders, and the public good is destroyed.

Charles Darwin wrote about this issue when dealing with the evolution of groups or tribes. It benefits a tribe when its members are cooperative, brave and concerned for each other. But each individual in the tribe has a natural predisposition to be a selfish individualist while benefiting from the social virtues of other members. So how does a tribe maintain its cooperation, courage and mutual concern over time?

Darwin pointed to a number of means. But a particularly powerful "stimulus to the development of social virtues," he wrote, was that people are deeply concerned about "the praise and blame of our fellow-men." Human beings avoid being free riders because it is shameful and they care about their reputations. Darwin added that religion gives to these duties the aura of sacredness.

Certain social virtues have become urgent during the covid-19 crisis. And this is testing our country at a weakened point. Many Americans have lost the sense that they share a common enterprise -- that they are part of the same tribe. It will seem extraordinary to future generations that, amid a pandemic, some used health policy as a political weapon in the culture war.

Yet for most people hesitant to take the vaccine, the problem is not polarization or conspiracy theories. It is inconvenience, needle fears and a vague sense of personal risk. It is the voice of safety and selfishness in our ear: If we are headed toward herd immunity anyway, what does it matter whether I get vaccinated?

You probably will not hear this assessment from medical professionals, who are trained to be nonjudgmental. But being judgmental is pretty much my job description. So: If you are healthy and refuse to take the vaccine when your chance comes, you are a free rider. You are gaining the benefits of living in a community without paying the minimal cost. And, in the middle of a health emergency, this is shameful. During the past year, front-line workers -- especially health workers -- have taken far greater risks each day. Many have paid with their lives. Many are paying with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Next to this, the real risk of getting vaccinated is minimal. You are being a bad citizen if you don't.

The reality, whether people like it or not, is that we do share a community. We owe much of our health and happiness to one another. And we have bonds of history and duty deeper than our differences.

Performing these duties is not without reward. There is a personal benefit in fulfilling a civic responsibility -- a sense of pride and shared purpose. And being vaccinated brings a thrill of freedom, allowing you to move through the world with less fear. But the ultimate goal -- the return of normal life -- can be achieved only when we act together.

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Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

Advance for release Tuesday, April 13, 2021, and thereafter

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Some in the Republican Party hope that it can eventually maintain the Trump coalition without the toxic excesses of Donald Trump's disordered personality. Already, a variety of talented and calculating figures -- Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) come to mind -- are trying to model populism minus the psychopathy. They are clearly imagining a day when a working-class and fundamentalist cultural revolt can be channeled into constructive public purposes. As one Republican congressional staffer has said: "Trump has changed the party forever, but that doesn't mean he will control the party forever."

It is a rational instinct. It also strikes me as a nearly impossible task. And Tucker Carlson illustrates why.

Every mention of the Fox News host, of course, plays into his career advancement strategy. He is the prime example of a professional troll. The Anti-Defamation League has demanded Carlson's firing for his unapologetic embrace of "replacement theory." Here is how Carlson defined this idea in the process of defending it last week: "The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World."

Why people should be offended by this mystifies Carlson. "Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it," he continued. "No, no, no, this is a voting-rights question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand-new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that? The power that I have as an American, guaranteed at birth, is one man, one vote, and they are diluting it."

There is a reason, of course, that "everyone" wants to make a racial issue out of this. Because it is a putrescent pile of racist myths and cliches. Nearly every phrase of Carlson's statement is the euphemistic expression of white supremacist replacement doctrine. "The Democratic Party" means liberals, which translates into Jews. They are importing "new people" from the "Third World" means people with black and brown skin. Those kinds of people, in the racist trope, are "obedient," meaning docile, backward and stupid. Their votes do not constitute real democracy because they are replacing the "current electorate" -- which is presumably whiter and less docile. These paler, truer Americans are thus deprived of their birthright of political dominance. And fighting back -- making sure the new Third World people have less power -- becomes a defense of the American way.

This is what modern, poll-tested, shrink-wrapped, mass-marketed racism looks like. Carlson is providing his audience with sophisticated rationales for their worst, most prejudicial instincts. And the brilliance of Carlson's business model is to reinterpret moral criticism of his bigotry as an attack by elites on his viewers. Public outrage is thus recycled into fuel for MAGA victimhood. And so the Fox News machine runs on and on.

Wouldn't it be best to simply ignore Carlson's provocations? That is increasingly difficult. Carlson plays the reprehensible but illuminating role of turning Trump's instincts into ideology. Carlson's redefinition of conservatism is insidious but coherent. And it seems to be prevailing.

In Carlson's version of the MAGA worldview, politics is played for the highest of stakes. "Western civilization" is under attack from liberalism. "America isn't falling to foreign invaders," Carlson has said. "It is rotting from within because the people in charge don't think it is worth preserving." And one of the main instruments that liberalism uses to secure power and undermine Western culture is elevation of "diversity" as a social ideal. In fact, according to Carlson, people from non-Western countries dilute and adulterate America's culture and heritage. Immigration makes the country "poorer and dirtier and more divided," he said in 2018. (Earlier, Carlson said Iraqis come from "a culture where people just don't use toilet paper or forks.") Mass migration, according to Carlson, is not merely a threat; the promotion of mass migration is a political conspiracy. Liberals are attempting to control the country by changing its ethnic makeup and polluting its culture. And this deprives true Americans -- those with, say, the racial makeup of Fox News viewers -- of their rightful place of social and economic influence.

Each day, Carlson gives a pure, accurate depiction of Trumpism. This viewpoint is not focused on the working-class economic dislocation caused by globalization, or even the moral panic resulting from rapidly changing cultural norms. It is an argument in favor of cultural purity, of social hygiene. Note Carlson's use of "dirtier" in describing immigrants, and his reference to toilet hygiene. Trumpism is an argument that Western society, and American society in particular, is being infected by dirty outsiders who are destroying the country's very nature.

Such a belief is difficult to reform around the edges. It can only be embraced or rejected. In the end, there can be no form of Trumpism with its hating heart removed.

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Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

MICHAEL GERSON COLUMN

Advance for release Friday, April 9, 2021, and thereafter

(For Gerson clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Recent events have driven home the importance of de-escalation in the context of policing. President Joe Biden is testing the theory in the ideological realm. And upon his success depends much about the long-term health of American democracy.

Congressional Republicans would surely counter that the Biden agenda has been anything but restrained. He has, after all, spent or proposed to spend more than $4 trillion in two legislative measures that place an active federal government at the center of U.S. economic life. His stimulus package included a carpet-bombing of free money and a generous, refundable child tax credit. His infrastructure plan is a bursting dam of Democratic spending proposals, many of which have minimal resemblance to infrastructure.

But when you look at the list of Biden's chosen issues -- vaccine distribution, unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, a child allowance, long-term care for the elderly and disabled, domestic manufacturing, the electrical grid, clean drinking water, high-speed broadband, electric cars, and affordable housing -- these priorities are united by what they are not. They are not culture-war issues.

Debates on Biden's agenda run in older, more comfortable ideological grooves. Big government vs. limited government. Tax increases vs. economic growth. Activism vs. obstructionism. Compassion vs. fiscal prudence.

The stakes of these debates are high but not apocalyptic. The contrast is particularly stark when compared with the controversies that led up to the Jan. 6 rebellion. The sitting president, Donald Trump, alleged a nationwide conspiracy to rig a presidential election against him. He routinely claimed to be targeted by a "deep state" plot involving the FBI and the CIA. He regularly made racist appeals to stoke White grievance. Many of his supporters believed the defeat of their favored candidate would herald the end of religious liberty and perhaps the collapse of Western civilization. A significant number believed a liberal cabal was capturing children, subjecting them to sexual abuse and harvesting their blood to make an immortality potion.

All the Democrats contending for the party's presidential nomination last year were united in their visceral contempt for Trump. Most proposed to fight fire with fire -- hoping to push along the cultural and ideological transitions that mean generational doom for the GOP. Only Biden -- by background and instinct -- effectively promised to fight fire with cleaner tap water.

That, of course, is an exaggeration. But a useful one. Biden is the embodied reassertion of an old Democratic belief: that the cultural politics practiced by the GOP can be countered and defeated by the delivery of positive, material goods to middle-class families. So far as president, Biden has been remarkably consistent in this focus. It is the basis for his congressional midterm bet that a defeated pandemic and a booming economy can appeal to the suburban voters who are the key to controlling the House of Representatives.

It is worth noting that this approach has often failed Democrats in the past -- leaving them in head-shaking wonder when voters choose their cultural commitments above their material interests. (Sometimes missed by Democrats is the alternative possibility that voters believe their long-term economic interests are better served by Republican policies, even if that means fewer direct government benefits.) Trump, after all, turned out millions of additional voters in 2020 with a crazed, culture-war battle cry.

Even now, Democrats should not underestimate how one relatively small cultural issue can crop up suddenly and dominate the discourse. Remember the contraceptive mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor during the Obamacare debate? And Biden needs to understand that climate policy (remarkably and absurdly) has become a culture-war issue for many Republicans. GOP leaders are already attacking the infrastructure plan as a rebranded Green New Deal. The charge could easily stick.

But Biden brings certain advantages to this effort. The progressive wing of his party is giving him room to run. That is a tribute to the Biden administration's careful consultation with the left. It might also result from genuine respect for the ambition of Biden's proposals within the ideological boundaries he has set. Progressives may be calculating, for example, that a dramatic reduction in child poverty -- which the refundable child credit would accomplish -- is worth the delay of more divisive cultural battles.

And Biden is fortunate in the current quality of his opponents. The Jan. 6 revolt leaves a political and moral aftertaste that is, well, revolting. A recent Gallup poll had Democratic Party self-identification leading that of Republicans by the greatest amount since 2012. Trump's continued domination of the party is a poisoned chalice, and GOP leaders still elbow each other for position to lick any drips off the floor.

If American politics were to become unrestricted cultural warfare between right and left, the consequences could be apocalyptic for our democracy. Biden stands in the way of that prospect. Therefore he needs to succeed.

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Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

About
Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. He is the author of “Heroic Conservatism” (HarperOne, 2007) and co-author of “City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era” (Moody, 2010). He appears regularly on the “PBS NewsHour,” “Face the Nation” and other programs. Gerson serves as senior adviser at One, a bipartisan organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases. Until 2006, Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. Prior to that appointment, he served in the White House as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speechwriting and assistant to the president for speechwriting and policy adviser.
Books
  • City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
  • Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don't)
Reviews
"Mike Gerson is a gifted writer and an original thinker, not to mention a dogged reporter, and he provides unique insights on politics, religion, the future of the conservative movement and other important topics. He brings a new and different perspective to our op-ed page." -- Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor, The Washington Post
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