An estimated 37 percent of eligible voters cast ballots during Tuesday's midterm elections—the lowest voter turnout since 1942. It wasn't that much of an anomaly, however: For decades, voter turnout in non-presidential election years has hovered far below what it was in the mid-19th century, when it peaked at around 70 percent. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the United States 120th out of 169 countries for average voter turnout.
Today, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed a way to reverse this trend: Make election day a national holiday. "Election day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote," Sanders said in a press release announcing the Democracy Day Act. "While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy."
With marijuana now legal in four states and the District of Columbia, the movement to end the prohibition of pot continues to gain steam. Another five states are expected to introduce ballot measures to legalize recreational pot in 2016, including California, Massachusetts, and Nevada. And by the end of the following year, pot activists expect five more states will vote on legalization bills in their state legislatures. But that's not all: six other states are looking at creating or expanding medical-marijuana programs, or are vastly scaling back penalties for small-time possession. With a slew of polls now showing that most Americans think pot should be taxed and regulated like alcohol, it's probably only a matter of time before legalization sweeps the nation.
Oregon and Alaska are renowned for their pot-smoking libertarians, hippies, and hipsters, but they're no match for the blazer-and-khaki-clad stoners in the nation's capital. That's right. DC's marijuana legalization measure, Initiative 71, which was predicted to sail through by a 2-1 margin, has officially passed by an even larger margin. Okay, not officially passed, but, you know, the big media guys called it and…and…what was I writing about again?
"Blacks make up about half of the district's population, but accounted for 90 percent of its arrests for drug possession last year."
If the DC vote caught you by surprise, then consider our capital's long, intimate relationship with the cannabis plant. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. George Washington urged his gardener to "make the most" of Indian hemp seed, which, translated into modern English, obviously means cooking it into hash oil and smoking dabs from an oil rig. (If you don't know what I'm talking about then you clearly don't live in DC.) The point is, DC was cool before Portland even fucking existed.
When I was in college in the late 1990s, I visited DC, where I bought some low-grade pot from some young black dude on the street. Such purchases happen all the time in DC, and when things go wrong, it's usually the young dealer, not the stoned college kid, who winds up in jail. The disparities are well known within the District's African American community: Blacks make up about half of the DC population but accounted for 90 percent of its arrests for drug possession, according to a study last year. And while, according to the Washington Post, African Americans in the District once tended to oppose legalization for fear it could lead to more young blacks getting addicted, they now support it as the same rate as whites do.
The most obvious reason that DC suits could get legal pot is that there's no rural DC—unless you count the cherry trees around the Washington Monument, which I don't. However, this map shows the vast swath of Oregon hinterlands that backed Mitt Romney in 2012. That tiny blue sliver resembling the Gaza Strip is Portland.
Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland has already pledged to "blunt" legal pot in DC.
But pro-pot voters in DC still face an uphill battle. While Washington is the most liberal place in America after San Francisco, (so says The Economist), it is also home to Congress, a slightly less progressive institution, which happens to control the District's purse strings and has 30 days to review and nullify any new DC law. Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, pictured above (he's the guy without the tea), has pledged to "blunt" the DC pot rule, as Politico aptly put it. Getting the rest of Congress to follow suit might get a lot easier if, as some pro-pot campaigners fear, thousands of ecstatic stoners spark up on the streets tonight.
These legalization measures weren't the only marijuana initiatives on the ballot Tuesday. Florida was supposed to be the first state in the South to legalize medical marijuana, but support for the measure took a nosedive, and it has lost by a fairly big margin. (Slate's Michael Ames blames "dysfunctional partisanship.") There are also local measures on the ballot in several states. And for what it's worth, a medical-marijuana referendum passed today by a 12-point margin in Guam, which is certain to give a boost to this song:
By now you're probably heard of #Gamergate, the internet lynch mob masquerading as a movement for ethics in video game journalism. Though #Gamergaters, as they're known, have repeatedly targeted their critics with rape and death threats, drawing rebukes from the broader gaming community, surprisingly few observers have asked whether violent video games themselves may have triggered this sort of abhorrent behavior.
Debate about video games and violence has, of course, been around almost as long as video games have. In 1976, the now-defunct game company Exidy introduced Death Race, a driving game based around mowing down what appeared to be pedestrians. "I'm sure most people playing this game do not jump in their car and drive at pedestrians," the behavioral psychologist Gerald Driessen told the New York Times. "But one in a thousand? One in a million? And I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It'll be pretty gory."
Driessen's fears seem almost quaint these days. Traffic fatalities and violent crime are at their lowest rates in decades, despite the advent of drastically more realistic and morally depraved games such as Grand Theft Auto. "Facts, common sense, and numerous studies all debunk the myth that there is a link between video games and violence," the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that represents the $65 billion video game industry, writes on its web page. "In fact, numerous authorities, including the US Supreme Court, US Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior."
Yet the ESA's defense of violent games masks a deeper reality: An emerging body of scientific research shows that the games may not be as harmless as many people think.
"Just because you don't necessarily go out and stab someone" after playing a violent game "doesn't mean you won't have a more adversarial mindset," says Susan Greenfield, an Oxford-trained neurologist and author of the forthcoming book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. "Your thermostat will change so that you will be more easily angered, more hostile than polite. And that, in fact, is what we're seeing with this #Gamergate thing."
Many studies, in fact, show a strong connection between gaming and the types of behaviors exhibited by the #Gamergate mob. A 2010 meta-analysis of 136 papers detailing 381 tests involving 130,296 research participants found that violent gameplay led to a significant desensitization to violence, increases in aggression, and decreases in empathy. "Concerning public policy, we believe the debates can and should finally move beyond the general question of whether violent video game play is a causal risk factor for aggressive behavior," the authors wrote. "The scientific literature has effectively and clearly shown the answer to be 'yes.'"
But this meta-analysis hasn't laid the debate to rest. As Erik Kain pointed out in Mother Jones last year, "another metastudy showed that most studies of violent video games over the years suffered from publication biases that tilted the results towards foregone correlative conclusions."
The aggressive behavior resulting from gaming isn't just theoretical; it can spill out into the real world. For example, a study of long-term effects in American and Japanese schoolchildren showed that as little as three months of intense gaming increased their frequency of violent behavior such as punching or kicking or getting into fights. Several studies have involved telling experimental subjects competing in a nonviolent video game that they could administer a sonic blast through their opponents' headphones, but warned that it would be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. Those most willing to administer the (nonexistent) sound blasts, as it turned out, had recently played violent games.
Other evidence suggests that people who play violent video games are less likely than others to act as Good Samaritans. Participants in an Iowa State University study played either a violent or nonviolent video game before a fake fight was staged outside the laboratory. Players of the violent game were less likely than other participants to report hearing the fight, judged the fight as less serious, and took longer to help the injured party.
In a 2012 study whose outcome relates more directly to #Gamergate, French college students played either a violent game or a nonviolent game before reading ambiguous story plots about potential interpersonal conflicts. The researchers then had them list what they thought the main characters would do, say, or feel as the story continued. The players of the violent games expected more aggressive responses from the characters in the story—a result that mirrors how the gaming community, but hardly anyone else, has consistently imputed evil motives to video game journalists and female game developers when reading about developments in the emerging "scandal."
Taken together, these studies may help explain why some participants in #Gamergate felt justified in sending rape and death threats to their critics while other gamers, instead of calling them out, looked the other way.
In her book, which is not without its critics, Greenfield lays out a neurological explanation for the video game/violence connection. While the well-known plasticity of the human brain allows it to adapt to a wide range of environments, Greenfield argues that it also exposes us to dangerous changes in brain chemistry when we immerse ourselves in violent video games for extended periods:
Investigators recorded the brain activity of experienced gamers, who normally played an average of fourteen hours per week, while they played a first-person shooter game…Results showed that areas of the brain linked with emotion and empathy (the cingulate cortex and the amygdala) were less active during violent video gaming. The authors suggest that these areas must be suppressed during violent video gaming, just as they would be in real life, in order to act violently without hesitation.
What's more, the thrill that we experience while playing video games results from a release of dopamine, the same brain stimulant that accounts for the addictive appeal of drugs, gambling, and porn.
When dopamine accesses the prefrontal cortex, it inhibits the activity of the neurons there, and so recapitulates in some ways the immature brain state of the child, or indeed of the reckless gambler, schizophrenic or the food junkie. Just as children are highly emotional and excitable, adults in this condition are also more reactive to sensations rather than calmly proactive.
"How might his apply to video games?" Greenfield goes on to ask. "You can afford to be reckless in a way that would have dire results in the three-dimensional world. The consequence-free nature of video gaming is a basic part of its ethos."
And, so it seems, of the ethos of #Gamergate. Harassing and threatening people might seem like fun to some people—until, at least, somebody dies in the real world.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 60 percent of videogames are violent. It should have stated that more than half of top-selling video games are violent. The sentence has since been fixed.
California's most competitive and closely watched political race this year is a battle for the hearts and minds of Silicon Valley. It pits US Rep. Mike Honda, a 73-year-old, seven-term progressive backed by organized labor, against fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a young patent attorney who has never held elected office but is bankrolled by the Valley's tech elite.
"Honda and I basically share the same values," Khanna told me—but they differ in their willingness to work across the aisle: "I can articulate a progressive vision that appeals to independent and Republican voters and helps broaden the appeal of the Democratic Party," he says. "Ultimately, I think I will be a more effective messenger for Democratic values than Congressman Honda."
The race, now in a dead heat, speaks to the rising political power of the tech industry.
Why wasn't this fight decided in the June primary, as it would have been in almost any other state? After all, Khanna finished more than 20 points behind Honda in that contest. But California's new nonpartisan primary system, which went into effect two years ago, allows the top two vote-winners, regardless of party, to face each other in the general election. A lot has changed since June too. According to a poll released last week, the race is now a dead heat, with Honda at 37 percent of likely votes to Khanna's 35 percent—a difference less than the poll's margin of error.
The race has national significance for what it says about the rising political power of the tech industry. Honda is a progressive icon who grew up in a Japanese American internment camp and spent 20 years as a schoolteacher and high school principal. But in a district that includes Apple, Cisco, Intel, and Yahoo, he is viewed by some as out of touch with the demands of the innovation economy.
Khanna is a "young, dynamic, hard-driving candidate who understands the unique issues facing Silicon Valley right now," Napster founder and early Facebook investor Sean Parker said at a Khanna fundraiser in San Francisco that drew Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and a slew of other prominent tech execs and venture capitalists.
Khanna often portrays his campaign as the equivalent of a tech startup—a nimble, bare-bones outfit bent on disrupting the status quo. "It's a fair comparison in the sense that the odds of a startup succeeding are a few percent and the odds of displacing an incumbent are a few percent," he says.
And like many startups, Khanna seems to have attracted tech donors based more on his educational pedigree and the force of his ideas than his actual accomplishments. "Politics is not a business," Khanna concedes when I press him on the analogy. "Your job is to care about a community, to be in touch with a community, to express empathy, to care about people who haven't necessarily had the same opportunities. Politics is much more nuanced and values-based."
Though caricatured by the Honda campaign as "Republican lite," Khanna certainly isn't conservative by national standards. He supports increasing overall taxes on the rich, supports paid maternity leave and child care tax credits, and creating an Internet Bill of Rights that would outlaw mass surveillance and allow people to know how tech companies use their data. He has been endorsed by the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News, which wrote that Khanna "is ready for the Congress of tomorrow, while Honda is a politician of the past."
That critique isn't entirely fair, however, and may partly reflect Silicon Valley's notorious ageism. Far from being out of step, Honda has cosponsored legislation that would double the number of H-1B visas. (Tech companies have long agitated for more H-1Bs.) He also pushed for a national "Entrepreneur in Residence" and passed a bill authorizing $3.7 billion for nanotechnology research.
Both men say the rich should pay a larger share, but Honda, unlike Khanna, wants to raise taxes on capital gains.
Khanna, though, has clearly done more to court business interests. He won the endorsement of the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, which Honda would not meet with. And he has made an economic agenda based upon government-backed education and scientific research the centerpiece of his campaign. Those differences wouldn't matter much in a typical Bay Area race between a Democrat and Republican, but they may prove important in a Dem vs. Dem contest in which independents and Republicans will provide the swing vote.
The most meaningful policy difference between Honda and Khanna is their approach to taxes. Both say the rich should pay a larger share, but Honda wants to go further to raise taxes on capital gains. Taxing profits from investments at the same rate as regular income, as he proposes, favors salaried workers over high-level executives, big investors, and employees at pre-IPO startups who take much of their compensation in stock or options.
"We need to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share in taxes, including millionaires and billionaires," Honda said in a statement provided by his staff. "Warren Buffett has said that it's wrong for him to be taxed at a lower rate than his secretary, and I agree. That's why I was for full repeal of the Bush tax cuts which favor the most wealthy, and for taxing capital gains as regular income. I also support raising the minimum wage and increasing Social Security benefits, two policies that are crucial to reducing income inequality."
Khanna readily admits that he's less interested in taking from the rich to help the poor. "While there may be a disagreement [in DC] on redistributive government spending, there shouldn't be a disagreement on productive government spending"—i.e., investments to spur the economy, he says. "I think Silicon Valley can help make that case, that there are areas of government spending on basic science and research that help make America an economic superpower. It is better to have a message that can get Republicans and independents to support a strong agenda, instead of just talking to your own group."
I asked Khanna if he'd ever heard of the Jungle, a San Jose homeless encampment that is by some accounts the largest in the country. He hadn't. "I should know about it, candidly," he said. "I don't think the tech community and those who have done well are sufficiently empathetic to that." He talked up using public-private partnerships to build affordable housing, adding: "We don't just live in communities with computer scientists."
But there are clearly more of them in the Valley than there used to be, which is one reason Khanna may have a crack at going to Washington.