News Brief: How US Media Obscures the Violence of the Generic, Sterile-Sounding “Border Deal”

Citations Needed | February 21, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
29 min readFeb 21, 2024 Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) speaks to reporters at the Capitol in December. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)


Intro: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief.

Nima Shirazi: I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show through All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full-length episodes of Citations Needed.

And today, we are thrilled to welcome back friend of the show Max Alvarez, editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, host of the Working People podcast, which like Citations Needed, is currently in its seventh season. And his book, The Work of Living, was published by OR Books in 2022. Max, welcome back to Citations Needed.

Max Alvarez: Hey, guys, thank you so much for having me back. Always a pleasure to be here.

Adam: So, this is obviously a very shitty, grim topic to talk about it.

Max Alvarez: Yeah, when are you guys gonna fucking invite me to do like one of the Christmas episodes? Like why do I always got to come on when like, shit is awful.

Adam: That is true. You always get the depressing.

Nima: Whenever we’re at our angriest, we’re like, who do we talk to?

Adam: To be fair, like 90% of our episodes are downers. But this in particular, we deal with a lot of cynicism in the show. It’s a key element of the show, obviously, and we deal with a lot of stupid things. This is, I got to think, is the highest combination of both.

Nima: The peak of both.

Adam: Yeah, it really is. And I’m careful, you know, Roger Ebert always said, if you’re gonna do a film review, you can never say this is the greatest ever. And if you say that, you have to be consistent for the rest of your life. You can’t just use hyperbole and superlatives to like, really punch up your writing. But I think this is a case where it’s the highest combination of both.

Nima: The highest order of that kind of apex of the Venn diagram overlap.

Adam: Correct. And let me sort of explain why real quick for our audience why that is. So, there was a “border deal” that was presented by Democrats a couple of weeks ago. That was a 100%, at least rhetorically and in key policy ways, a total 180 from the Democrats’ previous rhetoric around this issue during the Trump years and even some of the early Biden years where they, by their own admission, effectively copy and pasted a bill that is 90/95% a Republican bill on “the border.”

Nima: Complete capitulation to right-wing immigration tropes and policy recommendations.

Adam: Yeah, so in addition to doubling the budget of ICE enforcement, not just ICE, but the actual enforcement, which is to say the sort of guns, clubs, cages, etc., the bill includes $3 billion increase to detentions, a mechanism to shut down the border if a certain number of people cross which almost certainly will, $7 billion in emergency funding for Customs and Border Protection, and a continuation of Trump’s border wall, and also kicking out asylum seekers much quicker and shutting down the asylum process altogether unilaterally if they want to do so, which may or may not be a violation of international law. And usually, we’ll sort of say this Democrat policy is conservative or right-wing, and we kind of have to show it and do a lot of work to show it.

Nima: Yeah, they did our job for us because that’s what they’re touting it as. They’re like, don’t worry, this is the Republican bill, aren’t we so bipartisan?

Adam: And their clever “got you” which we’re calling in this episode, a kind of racist reverse UNO card is that they are saying we agreed with everything Republicans did effectively. And then they still didn’t support it because they’re under the sort of spell of Trump. It’s a little bit convoluted, which we’ll get into. But ultimately, this is their sort of gambit.

Nima: We gave them everything and it still wasn’t good enough. What more can we give them next?

Adam: More or less, yeah. Senator Mark Warner wrote,

They asked for significant changes to immigration policy. We gave it to them. They asked for 72 hours to read the bill. We gave it to them. What now?

Brian Schatz said, “Just gobsmacked.” This is after House Speaker Johnson refused to negotiate the bill, I guess. He said,

Just gobsmacked. I’ve never seen anything like it. They literally demanded specific policy, got it, and then killed it.

And this is Senator Tina Smith:

The Republicans are turning on the immigration bill they said they HAD to have. They got what they wanted, but since it’s not what Trump wants, it’s over.

So they’re very cutesy wutesy. Again, racist reverse UNO card.

Nima: Hypocrisy is the problem, not the fact that the Democrats gave an entirely Republican, racist, fascist immigration bill.

Adam: By their own definition, right.

Nima: You know, that like that was then their bill that they wanted to be super proud of with bipartisan support, going into this election year, and then “gobsmacked” by the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, rather than being completely ashamed of caving in the first place. Yeah, there’s no sort of sense of either the human stakes or the moral content of the bill itself.

Nima: So, let’s bring in our guest Max Alvarez. Max, good to have you on the show.

Max Alvarez: Hi, yeah, let’s get into this, goddamnit.

Adam: So let’s begin by discussing this hard right turn, which again, is hard right by their own definition. We’ve been told for years that the Republican Party is completely owned and co-opted by Trump. This is the Republican bill, the transitive property Ergo, ipso facto, hager pock rock tick tock, It is, therefore, a Trumpian policy by definition, okay? The Democrats have always been, of course, fairly right-wing on immigration since the Clinton years. Operation Gatekeeper, which we can get into, that sort of made violence and making the border crossing inherently difficult and dying of thirst, and deprioritizing any kind of humanitarian intervention. That was essential to sort of deterring immigration. This has been the philosophy of the border for almost 30 years but bipartisan consensus. Now, this is different though. This is a sort of radical shift, both in rhetoric and in terms of just pure throwing military, militarized solutions at the problem. The general idea is that we need to sort of increase the violence, and the caging, and the rejection of asylum-seeking because that will deter these, I guess, immigrants who are coming here as sort of a whimsical choice. It’s like backpacking in Europe after college. They kind of just want to knock it off their bucket list rather than desperate asylum seekers, for the most part.

Nima: Right. So if it’s harder, they’ll just not do it as opposed to the fact that everything is already hard, which is why they’re doing that.

Adam: Right. So, I’m gonna sort of begin by talking about the cynical gambit even by sort of normal standards as we discussed, and how you think it’s played out over the last couple of weeks, and what you’ve made of this very, very stark, just rhetorical 180 where they’re not even faking like their hearts bleed for immigrants anymore like they were in 2017, 2018, 2019.

Max Alvarez: I mean, let’s start there because funnily enough, and I know we’ll get to this, you know, a bit later, you know, in terms of like, the way that the media has spoken about this, what you guys touched on, but just the sort of ways that as Adam has written about beautifully in places like The Nation or The Real News, right, you just sanitize the human stakes out of all of this when you’re talking about a a “border deal.” You’re talking about bipartisanship in the sort of like sports-like terms where all you really care about is the perceived balance of power between the two duopolistic ruling parties in this country. I mean, like, there’s all just a huge sort of casino gambling air about the whole enterprise. But we’re not just talking about a deal. We’re not just talking about policy in the abstract term, like we are talking about decisions that are being made that directly impact the lives and fates of flesh and blood human beings who are just as human as you or I.

Max Alvarez

In terms of the media side, just like the thing that the media has been obsessing over is like the thing I want to talk about the least but I’ll get it out of the way here at the top, because as a political strategy, and this is what you know, like every liberal pundit is trying to sort of like harp on right now. They’re taking their lead from the Biden campaign, which is sending this messaging out to its supporters as this like, you know, ooh, like strategic gotcha moment for Biden where he called Republicans’ bluff. Not only catching them with their pants down and making them look either just tied around the finger of Trump or in general disarray, unable to govern whatever message they hope they’re sending about Republicans, this is being hailed as a win for Biden’s re-election campaign. Because now, Biden can purportedly say that if Republicans or right-wing voters, or the proverbial “swing voter” who is concerned about immigration, but I mean, like, let’s be real, if immigration is your primary electoral concern, you’re gonna vote Republican. And you are right-wing. Like, I mean, that’s a pretty easy generalization that you can make. I’m not saying it’s like one-to-one, but it’s pretty darn close.

But anyway, like, now, the Biden campaign is out there saying that Trump and Republicans are the reason that there’s a crisis at the border. We tried to solve this. Look at all the things that we offered that they said no to, right? They think that gotcha thing is going to stick in the minds of voters. But again, if you are a voter who is going to vote primarily on this issue, if you perceive there to be this “invasion” of migrants at the southern border that needs to be “dealt with,” you know, like in the terms that we’re talking about here, and in the terms laid out in this bipartisan order deal that Republicans themselves demanded and then killed at the behest of Trump but that Democrats still offered, still put on the table, still said, hey, if you accept this, it’s going into law. Like I mean, they still put that up. And if you are a voter who wants stronger immigration to address this crisis at the border, then you are going to go with the candidate that you think is like the biggest, baddest asshole when it comes to dealing with stuff at the border. And no matter how much Biden wants to pretend that he can out-Trump Trump, he will not. Trump and Stephen Miller will always just up the stakes, they’re gonna say like, okay, no Biden, you know, like that bill didn’t go far enough. We need to dig a moat. We need mechanized sharks with lasers on their head like Dr. Evil, like, he’s always going to up the ante.

And so as a political strategy, I think this is just incredibly stupid. Not only cruel but stupid. And also, it’s gonna further as Adam pointed out in his writing for The Nation as well, it’s gonna further alienate voters who are already alienated from this administration, people who voted for Biden in 2020 in large part, maybe not only, but like, we’re really responsive to his messaging in response to the cruel family separation policy of the Trump administration, the detention camps that we were seeing pictures of. Biden was campaigning as being a compassionate return to sanity after what we were witnessing at the border under Trump, and people who believe that, what are we supposed to do with what the Biden White House and the Democrats just offered to the Republicans?

And I just want to stress that as a political strategy, even though Democrats who are so stuck in this stupid, inhumane, it’s all just like gambling and sports and playing with us like we’re just pawns in their stupid little game to keep their jobs and whatnot. They don’t actually give a shit about any of us. We’re all just human-shaped cardboard cutouts, right? I mean, it’s going to be disastrous in the sense of, I don’t see who this is really going to appeal to. It alienates your existing base, the proverbial conservatives or reasonable Republicans or whatever that they’re still appealing to are going to vote for Trump anyway, especially if they’re voting on the border itself.

And as a policy solution, we could talk about that for days, right? I mean, how, as you mentioned, for decades, we have been operating on a paradigm of increasing the cruelty and death and violence at the border in hopes of deterring migration. And here we are talking about waves of migration like our US obsession with throwing more money at police even though more police and more money for police do not translate to less crime. Just look at the reporting we published on Baltimore here at The Real News Network. There’s a fantasy here of thinking that somehow we’re going to be able to “close the border,” that if we just get cruel enough, we will be able to stop these waves of people who are coming. But it’s going to be the same thing that happens to undocumented people who are already in this country when we ramp up immigration enforcement and restrictions on their ability to live and work and commune with the society that they live in. What we know from the data, what we know from people who are in this situation, and what we have seen, you know, time and time, again, is that if you make life harder for undocumented people in this country in the hopes that you’re going to push people just to leave the country, they’re not going to. They’re going to stay, but they’re going to be more in the shadows. They’re going to be more exploitable. They’re going to be easier for bosses to take advantage of. And you’re going to have the same sort of problem. You can militarize the border all you want, but if you don’t address the root causes of why people are coming, if you don’t create any sort of humane system to deal with the people who are there, you’re going to have a “war of escalation” where the increase of militarism and violence at the border is only going to lead to an increase of violence and death of people trying to cross the border. It’s not going to stop people from coming to the border.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, it really seems like the Democratic Party has a singular constituent audience in mind, and it’s like, Bill Kristol. That’s the singular human being who could possibly be like, you know, I think I’m gonna vote for whoever’s not Trump anyway, but I really need to feel better about it. So like, what we may have lost in genociding Palestinians, maybe we’ll win back some of those votes by just having a fascist border deal.

Adam: Well, so let’s talk about this real quick because I want to establish the stakes here a little bit, which is, according to the United Nations immigration monitor, the US-Mexico border is the deadliest land border in the world. And it’s not even close. Almost 700 people in 2022, the last year that they measured, died crossing the border. Another 700 died on the way to the border. So, they died sort of trying to get into the States but were killed. And so, this is extremely deadly. We’re talking over 1,300 people a year die trying to make it into the United States. Now this bill again, because it effectively doubles and in some cases, triples, presumably, that’ll lead to maybe two, three thousand people. Presumably, that’s the sort of price we have to pay to “end the border crisis” because the logic is one of violence. The logic is one of surveillance and caging. And violence by their own admission, right? This is not a kind of lefty assertion. This is the logic of Operation Gatekeeper, which has been the animating policy of US immigration for three decades. Any attempt, as you said, Max, to think about holistic solutions or to think about why these countries are so poor, the extent to which the US is funding militarized governments in certain countries. Now, the US is not responsible for everything, obviously, maybe not even most, but a lot of it. You know, sanctions in Venezuela have fueled a lot of the US sanctions of Venezuela stealing billions of dollars of their oil and assets to try to prolong this zombie regime change operation they’ve been running since 2017 if not before.

Max Alvarez: Bro, I mean, I’m telling everyone, go to The Real News Network and listen to our new podcast series by journalist Mike Fox. It’s called Under the Shadow. The entire series is about US intervention in Latin America and the legacies of that intervention that are still present in Latin American politics today. Season one focuses on Central America. And we’ve been looking at the proof of all of this intervention and the direct causality between US intervention in foreign countries like supporting dictatorships in El Salvador, like supporting genocide in Guatemala, like supporting coups in Honduras, and then saying, it’s not our problem. Or like supporting sanctions that starve people in Venezuela and then saying, it’s not our problem when people who can’t live under those conditions flee to our borders. It’s madness. What does this say about the Democrats and about the political arena that we are currently in?

It’s so ironic because in the ‘90s, you mentioned Clinton earlier, right? We had this sort of “Third Way” shift. We don’t have to re-litigate that whole history here, right? But I mean, like Clinton, the New Democrats, they represented this, you know, novel paradigm shift in which Democrats, especially after the popularity of Reagan, felt that they could beat Republicans by essentially being Republicans and tacking hard right on things that Republicans previously said, you know, Democrats were too soft on right and trying to peel off Republican voters in that vein. What that did, as I said, you know, in Episode 84, was like, maybe that worked a little bit in the ‘90s, but it’s not like the Republican Party just like went away, they tacked farther right, right? You create a sort of ideological vacuum that gets filled by the right wing of the party because you’ve tried to peel off the center-right of the party. That center-right doesn’t exist anymore as anyone who listens to this show knows.

Bill Clinton signs the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act into law in 1996.

But now we are sort of in a situation where even if, you know, like Democrats as generous as we can, when they say they never actually thought Republicans were going to take this deal, they just wanted them to shoot it down, I don’t buy that for a number of reasons. But the main one is the Overton window. This is the ultimate grand point here about the political side of this. The Overton window is officially shifted. That’s what this is. The scope of immigration policy in this country for the foreseeable future, we got Biden and Trump competing to be the president for the next four years. This is now the terrain upon which we are prepared to talk about the viable ways of addressing immigration at the US-Mexico border. That pretends, I think, a really, really dark future for our politics here. And as a political strategy, this doesn’t work. But even so, something is going to be very big political consequences of the Overton Window shifting this hard. You’re not just going to go back the next time that we debate border policy. This is going to be the standard upon which we are now negotiating. And that is how the country keeps drifting farther to the right.

Nima: Right, because this is now the new left side of it, right? This is now like, as far left as the Democratic Party is gonna go is this fascist Republican bill.

Adam: Because how can you make any kind of credible vaguely humanitarian argument? Because if you’re accepting the premise that a bunch of increased enforcement and caging and clubbing and violence is how you stop, then why not make it more extreme? Why not adopt Trump’s policy? And you saw this when the Democrats opposed this bill, Trump gave a speech, saying he wanted to do you know, basically internment camps for immigrants and mass ship them off because you have to sort of raise the stakes, you have to get more hardcore.

And I want to talk a bit about this triangulation if you’ll indulge me. Now, there’s this assumption. There’s kind of two schools of thought here, that Democrats do this triangulation, accepting the premise of Republicans because they have no choice, right? They’re very sad. They don’t want to do it, but they have to do it because they need to win elections. There’s some sort of greater good argument. And then there’s the second belief, which is a more cynical one and one I’m more and more leaning towards, and I want to get your thoughts on it, which is that they’re not actually doing this to win elections. They’re just doing it because they agree with the right-wing border policy, and they’re using the cover of triangulation and electoral calculation to pass the policy they ideologically, and I think the elite consensus among big donors and conventional wisdom is that a militarized border is necessary, especially in light of some of these climate models that have been coming out lately. Kate Aronoff wrote about this in The New Republic, I thought quite prophetically, unfortunately, which is that this is fundamentally a climate change story. And that one of the reasons why they want to militarize it now is they see a unique opportunity to do so with the stars aligning, and that this is less about triangulation for the sake of winning, but it’s actually because they generally actually agree with Republicans. Now, some would argue maybe it’s a combination of both, right? Different senators obviously can have different motives. But I want to get your thoughts on that. Is this really just an emerging consensus that any kind of addressing of underlying issues is just pie in the sky, far-left, wacko nonsense, and it’s time to bring in the fucking guys with wraparound Oakleys and Tom Cruise haricots to kick some ass and take some names and really militarize the border.

Max Alvarez: I mean, like, it is tough to say, right? I mean, none of us can truly peer into the hearts of other people. But like, I think, by their actions, by the way in which our elected officials, you know, like comport themselves, especially when they’re put in the unenviable position of having to make it clear that they do not agree with the majority of their constituents like we’re seeing right now with Biden’s continued unpopular and inhumane support of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza and Palestinians writ large. You know, in those sorts of situations, you lose that fiction of democracy. You lose that, you know, manufactured fiction that Democrats have hidden behind so well in the past, which is, you know, like, we can’t be too radical on this because we’re going to alienate voters, right? We can’t talk too much about trans people and whether or not they’re human because we’re gonna alienate some wine parents in the suburbs or something like that, right? I mean, there was always this sort of way that Democrats use the sort of ostensible threat of democratic accountability from their base who were going to reprimand them with their votes to justify, you know, their inaction, to justify their hapless politics and lukewarm neoliberalism and all that stuff. But they always use that sort of like, oh, we are beholden to a fragile voting base that we can’t alienate, you know, to justify their ineffective politics. But yeah, I think that the more that they have to show their hand and show that, in fact, like, no, that’s actually like, kind of what they wanted to do anyway, or they, you know, in some regard, they are so cynical about whatever lingering like vestiges of democracy that we have in this country that they really only do see elections in that way, right, as sort of like points to be wrapped up in your corner to beat the other guy, but there’s just the kind of soulless cynicism to it all. There absolutely is a demonstrated quality to the ruling class serving political elites, whatever the hell we want to call them. But the people who are running the show right now, they are making it very clear that no matter how loudly we protest, how unpopular their signal policies are, once you get to that point, they just kind of say, well, you know, tough, you know, like, we don’t actually care what you think. And I do think that that’s where we are now.

Nima: Well, because I think that their audience is actually not the vast majority of historic Democratic voters.

Adam: But it’s also the easiest thing to do. It’s easy to throw vulnerable groups under the bus, right? Like, it requires no effort.

Nima: Exactly because there winds up being no accountability. And to them, there are no stakes. And I actually kind of want to stay on this idea of stakes for a second, Max, but kind of make it less about the politicians who I think, you know, in large measure, have no real ideology other than maintaining power and whatever right-wing trope is said to be like the leading idea in polling majorities. But in terms of media and the coverage of this — to get a little meta, but that’s also what we do on Citations Needed, we like talking about the media — the coverage of this, you know, now Republican betrayal of bipartisanship, right and the shock and horror, the pearl-clutching of so much of the media at what has been seen here, I think, maybe summarized in a piece by Greg Sargent of The New Republic. And let me read this paragraph of this recent piece. This is from the February 13th, 2024 article by Greg Sargent in The New Republic headlined, “An Infuriating Poll Finding About Trump Should Galvanize Democrats.” Subhead is “Trump killed the border deal, but Biden is getting blamed. Here’s what Democrats need to do to turn that around.” Here is a key paragraph from that, and I want to get your take on this, Max. Sargent writes this:

“What’s more, Democrats get almost identical blame to Republicans, even though virtually all Senate Democrats voted for the deal, while virtually all Republicans opposed it. That’s after Democrats made the bulk of the concessions required to broker the compromise, which would have made it much harder to apply for asylum, channeled vast expenditures into fortifying the border, expanded detention of migrants, and expedited processing of asylum-seekers, including faster removal of those who don’t qualify.”

Now, Max, when we hear media shake their heads with such incredulity at the fact that with even all of that on the table for Republicans to just vote yes on it, they still voted no. And somehow, Trump is gaining from this Biden is losing from this. Greg Sargent cannot figure out why this is the case, right? We hear terms like, you know, the border is stricter. There’s going to be bigger crackdowns, tougher enforcement, expedited expulsion. Somehow, these are never translated into what this means for the human beings who are already the subject of so much violence and fear and threat. Adding to that, men, women, children, families, whomever, what are you seeing as being really missed iIn when the media talks about “border enforcement” or “immigration policy” that completely misses the human stakes, that are really at the core of this issue, and yet, that are completely omitted from all of the reporting?

Max Alvarez: I mean, I think, you know, anyone who’s doing that work to show you who the people who are being affected by this are, so you can hear them, you can see them, you can know them at least a little bit more, and see that in fact, when we talk about enforcement, right, when we talk about the numbers of you know, people who are coming to the border and trying to cross the border, they are not just numbers, right? They are people. They are people like my dad who is a Mexican immigrant. They are people like my foster daughter who is from Honduras and is undocumented. There are people like you and me, there are people who hurt, whose skin gets just as easily sliced open by razor wire, whose lungs fill just as much with water when they can’t breathe and are submerged, whose minds go just as much to their families and their homes and their places of comfort when they are stuck in a cell somewhere or they are dying in a desert somewhere. These are the human stakes of what we’re talking about here.

And I couldn’t sum it up I guess any better than I think I did. I hope I did in a piece that I actually wrote a couple years ago. This is in 2019 for Current Affairs, it’s called “Somebody’s Baby,” and I wrote that after watching this horrendous, horrific video of a boy Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez or Goyito as he was known. He was from Guatemala, he came up, he made the journey north with his sister. And they made it to the border. They crossed and then they were immediately captured by ICE, separated as is custom, and Goyito though died in a cell all alone, just yards away down the hall from perfectly able, awake staff at the facility that was holding him prisoner. He died on the floor of the flu. He didn’t get the basic care that he needed. And that was a cell that we all paid for. But I watched that video of Goyito dying of the flu, just imagining the unimaginable pain and sorrow going through his body in his final moments on this earth in a country that saw him as nothing more than just a brown cockroach. Right? Those are the human stakes that we lose. When you allow yourself to give in to the sort of kind of capitalist conditioning that we get in this country that trains us to see each other as just robots or as nothing. It’s that much easier to permit the exploitation of our fellow workers, right? It’s that much easier to allow the poisoning and abandoning of communities like East Palestine, Ohio because we don’t see each other as worth fighting for. Like that doesn’t happen overnight. That’s a conditioning that comes through our media, through our politics.

Adam: So let’s talk about that media real quick. Because we noted that, right? I mean, The New York Times, AP, Washington Post, CNN, none of these outlets, when they reported on this “border deal,” talked to either migrants or migrant rights groups at all. And this is repeated over and over and over again in every single article about this. And this is, I think, the thing that sort of initially disgusted me and I know disgusted you, which is why when I reached out about the article, you were like, yeah, yeah, it’s been disgusting to me as well. It’s just so fucking callous the whole thing has been. This euphemism reigns. It’s just crackdowns, strict, tough. The average person would read this and think there was some button they pushed. And then suddenly, people from south of the border just said, okay, let’s stay home. They’re not understanding that this translates into hundreds, if not thousands of more people are going to die, be caged and deported, like lives destroyed. And all this sort of saccharine kids in cages stuff just went away. And I know that again, it can be dicey. A lot of city governments are overwhelmed with migrants being bused to their cities. And there’s kind of this race to the bottom, kind of bottom rung politics you see and false austerity. But there’s just a callousness and an ignoring of the human stakes that has taken place over the last two weeks that genuinely disgusts me like on a basic moral level. And you’re right, really what I think you can do, or when any journalist — God forbid, some reporter or journalist is listening to this — at least take just a fucking paragraph and establish the human stakes at all because it’s just not there. It’s just the way Chris Murphy talks about it. The way that the White House is talking about it, you would not know there are humans on the business end of the so-called border security bill. It’s just they don’t exist.

Nima: Especially because their voices are completely absent from any of the reporting.

Max Alvarez: Right. And this is the problem that we are putting our fingers on here. Like it’s such a vicious problem in this country but not just here, right? Because it’s self-perpetuating. My answer to the question is the question itself. Right? How can we be so callous? How can our media be so callous talking about this? Well, in large part, it’s because our media has always been so callous talking about this. It’s not all the media, it’s not like the media just tells us how to think, right? I’m trying to make a point here, right, that the sort of environment of permissible discourse that we live in, right, the ways that we are trained from birth to just accept the unacceptable, the ways that, You know, a little child who knows that there’s something wrong about another human being sleeping on the street and people walking past them and yelling at them and being mean to them instead of helping them and trying to give them shelter and health care, right, even as a kid, you know that there’s something wrong there. But then you are told that’s not your problem to deal with. You’re told maybe it’s that person’s fault. You’re told, you know, all these things that again, just over time condition us to be that callous, and the media constantly, you know, like refreshes that mindset.

Adam: There is a conditioning and removing the human element is part of that conditioning. I agree, especially when this has been preceded by years and years of scare stories about immigrants and claims about immigrant criminality that is not again, not empirically based. I want to talk for a bit about the issue of — we’ve made the moral argument, but if you do care about democratic electoral victory, if one accepts that premise, I do think there is a practical critique here as well. And it’s one I tried to make in my Nation piece, which is that if you have a political party that constantly looks like it’s going to do a 180 and throw vulnerable groups under the bus even if there are groups that are not powerful. And I don’t want to conflate immigrants with Hispanics, right? Because Hispanics statistically can often have conservative opinions on immigration, right? It’s not a monolith. But immigrants and immigrant rights groups were, like you said, they were a meaningful part of the coalition that got Biden elected in 2020, at least the rhetoric around Trump’s horrible border policies. And then you say, well, fuck you, you know, we don’t need you. And we’re going to try to win over these Panera Bread white people because supposedly their votes count more than yours somehow. Not sure how that works. And Muslims and Arabs, we don’t need you either. Fuck you.

Nima: They have money for donations.

Adam: Well, no, I think it’s because their interests reflect Wall Street. They’re a proxy for the donor class more than they are about the votes themselves. And then you say, Muslims and Arabs, we don’t need you either. Fuck you. And drug rights advocates, you know, during the crack pipe pandemic, two years ago, I wrote about this, we don’t really need you either. And I think it’s like when you work at a job that sucks, and you watch people get fired left and right for capricious reasons, what’s the first thing you do? You go home and you update your resume? Because why would I want to work extra long hours? Why would I want to buy in, why would I want to care about an organization that at the drop of a hat can sell me out? You know, I get compromises have to be made sometimes, but the ways in which Democrats routinely over the last 30 years, but I think even more acutely in the last three or four years can just on a dime, change all their rhetoric and just sell out vulnerable groups because of some again, cutesy wutesy, racist, reverse UNO card, triangulation, you know, clever. Again, I’m sure this worked really, really well in whatever their West Wing image of how this was gonna play out.

Nima: Because it’s all linked to the lesser of two evils, they still believe they’re the lesser of two evils and so therefore, they can do anything and still not lose the majority of their base.

Adam: But as a practical level though, right, you would think that eventually, you would think that has some downsides electorally. Again, this is assuming the premise that their goal is to win elections versus just advance conservative ideology. So, maybe I’m being a bit deliberately naive here.

Nima: Which is an open question.

Adam: Which is an open question. But it’s like, right now in Britain, explicitly, the Labour Party is starting to turn on trans people. So like, I guess they’re next on the hit list if Democrats perceive that as being something that plays well in the suburbs or whatever. There’s a real sense that we’re all just in this kind of political gig economy. We can get fired at any moment for any reason. And I have to think that does have some long-term electoral downsides. I would think. But this idea, the Greg Sargents of the world don’t consider that a risk at all, it’s just taken for granted. That fuck them, we need to win over some nebulous suburban voter, right?

Max Alvarez: I mean, like, for the next, you know, nine months, we’re not going to be talking about this. We’re going to be getting what everyone knows is coming, right? We’re going to be getting browbeaten by everyone and their mother who supports Biden into, you know, voting for Biden because what? Do you want Trump? Like actually, you know, look at Biden, he’s got like a great meme game, he trolled the right. I mean, we’re gonna get the same crap that we got in 2020.

Nima: He’s on TikTok now.

Max Alvarez: He’s on TikTok, right. Yeah, so to Nima’s point, we’re gonna get the lesser of two evils, we’re gonna get the “this the most important election of our lives.” And I mean, that still worked in 2020. People showed out and record numbers in a pandemic even as people are losing more faith in like the viability of our institutions of governance, right? So, we are I do think in some sort of a civic social crisis in this country. And at some point, the bottom is gonna give out. We are so far down the kind of nihilism that Democrats have fostered in us by being so disdainful of the voting public, so easy to throw constituencies under the bus, so cynical in their political calculations. We’ve lost so much faith in them that we can’t even muster the strength to fight fascism when it’s knocking on our door. That is the situation that we’re in. And it does have a cumulative effect. I can only tell you what people have told me on my show, but I talk to these people every week. And I think you will hear that effect in people and stories across the country.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, there’s definitely going to be a diminishing return on not giving anyone anything, right? Eventually, people just are not going to support you. And that kind of void of support is going to be filled by more compelling stories, even if the reality behind those stories is completely bullshit, right? And that’s why I think we talk about the power of the media, the power of political storytelling on the show so much and the narratives that are animated by them because those really wind up being so much more of a reality for people, right? That they vote on the hope of a story or they vote on, you know, someone that is at least giving them rhetorically, some things, some kind of power back. And when all of that is stripped away, you’re just not going to have anyone supporting your bullshit political platform when you give everything to the other side and then are incredulous when they won’t pat you on the back for it. So, I think you know this, whether it’s East Palestine, Ohio or what we’re seeing with this absurd border deal and the media fallout from it, the stakes are obviously incredibly high. The throughlines of kind of how perception works and how political bullshitting works are incredibly stark here.

Emergency workers in East Palestine, Ohio, in February, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar / AP)

And I will just say that it, as always, is a pleasure to have you, Max Alvarez back on Citations Needed. We’ve been talking to Max. He is the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, host of the Working People podcast, now in its seventh season. Check it out. Max’s book, The Work of Living was published by OR Books in 2022. Max Alvarez, always such a pleasure to have you on Citations Needed.

Max Alvarez: Thanks so much for having me, guys. Always a pleasure to be on. Solidarity.

Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Join us again very soon for more full-length episodes of the show. Until then, of course, you can follow You can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and if you are so inclined, have the means, and like the show enough to do this, and we hope that you do, become a supporter of our work through All your support is so appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded. But that will do it. Thanks again for listening. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed’s senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, February 21, 2024.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.