How voice actors are fighting to change an industry that renders them invisible

Actors from The Simpsons, Central Park, and Big Mouth have left their parts amid conversations around whitewashing in voice acting. | Fox/Apple/Netflix; remixed by Aja Romano for Vox

People think I’m a white guy on the internet.” From Big Mouth to Apu, animation reckons with racism in voice acting.

In the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality, calls for change have reached far into the corners of pop culture, from old comedy shows removing blackface episodes to an infamously named football team finally ditching its racist moniker to surprising upheavals within the TV voice acting industry. Several white voice actors from popular TV shows, who were originally cast to play characters of color, have stepped away from their roles in order to encourage the show’s producers to recast them authentically. In doing so, they’ve acknowledged the long-standing problem of whitewashing in the voice acting industry, and the detrimental effect it’s had on actors of color and the quest for meaningful representation in Hollywood.

The trend arguably ignited in late June, when actor Jenny Slate decided to step away from her role as a biracial character on the popular Netflix animated comedy Big Mouth. She’s since been replaced by comedian Ayo Edebiri. Slate’s decision — inspired by the racial tensions provoked by the police killing of George Floyd nearly a month before — opened the floodgates. In the intervening weeks, a wave of similar decisions by white actors like Kristen Bell and production teams like The Simpsons to recast their characters of color made headlines. With them have come questions about whether the trend of race-conscious recasting should extend to include any role, whom it impacts, and whether it’s anything more than a cosmetic change in the long term. But then there’s the biggest question of all: How does the animation industry give Black, Indigenous, and other actors of color a better shot at landing diverse roles when those roles barely exist to begin with?

White actors have been walking away from roles they now say were miscast all along

Creators in the animation industry have for years hand-waved away any problematic implications of having white characters play nonwhite ones. From the minstrelsy-inspired Mickey Mouse to the Latin-accented Speedy Gonzales to characters of color on more modern shows like King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers, and BoJack Horseman, white voice actors have been the de facto choice for decades, no matter the character.

“I was definitely aware that that was an issue and that was a problem. But if you look at animation, the precedence feels a little different,” BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg told IndieWire in 2018. One of the Netflix show’s major characters, Diane Nguyen, was voiced by the white actress Alison Brie. “Part of the issue is, when it comes to animation you convince yourself, ‘Anybody can play anything so it doesn’t matter.’”

Even as recently as this past January, Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard took a “what can you do?” approach, telling Variety that he “needed” to cast white actress Kristen Bell as a biracial character on his upcoming Apple TV+ cartoon Central Park. “Kristen needed to be Molly; we couldn’t not make her Molly,” he said. “But then we couldn’t make Molly white and we couldn’t make Kristen mixed race, so we just had to go forward.”

The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in late May forced people throughout Hollywood to reconsider that attitude virtually overnight. Jenny Slate’s decision to walk away from her Big Mouth role reflects how the surge in anti-racist rhetoric throughout society came to bear on the voice acting industry. “I have come to the decision today that I can no longer play the character,” Slate posted June 24 on Instagram. She went on to say that while she believed her Jewish identity made it okay for her to play the character of Missy, whose mom is Jewish, she now understood that “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people … I was engaging in an act of erasure.”

Now prepping the show’s fourth season, the show’s co-creators, Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett supported Slate’s decision. In a follow-up post made to Kroll’s Instagram, they apologized for “our original decision to cast a white actor to play a biracial character,” and vowed to recast her.

Slate’s decision was surprising news, as was the support her show’s producers issued for her decision. It was also precedent-setting: Shortly after Slate encouraged her Big Mouth producers to appropriately recast her biracial character, Bell followed suit. The same day Slate announced her decision, Bell tweeted that she’d be leaving her Central Park role.

“This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity,” Bell tweeted. “Playing the Molly in Central Park shows a lack of awareness of my pervasive privilege. Casting a mixed race character w/a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race & Black American experience.”

She accompanied her post with a message of support from the show’s core creative team.

“We profoundly regret that we might have contributed to anyone’s feelings of exclusion or erasure,” the team wrote. “Our show will be better for respecting the nuances and complexity around the issue of representation and trying to get it right.” Bell will remain with the show, voicing a new character.

Other actors and shows quickly followed, On June 26, The Simpsons, released a statement announcing that “moving forward, The Simpsons will no longer have white actors voice nonwhite characters.”

The show, which enters its 32nd season this fall, first made headlines because of its non-diverse voice casting as far back as in 2017. Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu criticized the show that year in his documentary The Problem With Apu, which argued that the Indian convenience storeowner Apu is a troubling racist stereotype. A 2018 episode of The Simpsons offered a begrudging response to Kondabolu’s critique, and the debate over whether Apu was offensive continued. It culminated this past January, when cast member Hank Azaria announced he would no longer voice the character. It’s still unclear whether The Simpsons will completely retire the popular character, but if they recast him, it won’t be with another white actor.

Actor Mike Henry, who played the Black character Cleveland Brown on Family Guy, announced that same day that he, too, would be vacating the role for a Black actor to take over instead.

Henry, who had voiced Brown since the show’s debut in 1999, said on Twitter that while “It’s been an honor to play Cleveland … persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”

The impetus for these changes seems to be the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and subsequent calls to examine underlying problems of racism in many industries, including Hollywood. Speaking in more detail about her decision to pass on the role of Missy to a Black actor, Slate told BuzzFeed on July 2 that it was “something that needed to happen. … I looked around my life and I could see very clearly where my reasoning was flawed and racist.”

For an increasing number of white voice actors, it’s time to share a responsibility to pass the microphone to actors of color. “For the time being,” voice actor Allegra Clark (Sailor Moon, Fortnite) told me in an email, “it’s important for white actors to take a step back and pass on auditions for characters of color, so that those opportunities are going to the right people to begin with.”

Those opportunities, however, have been vanishingly rare. Animated storytelling in Hollywood has been non-diverse in the extreme, and ethnic and racial stereotypes are seen across the long history of children’s animation, from Song of the South to Looney Tunes. Cartoon villains overwhelmingly had foreign accents throughout the early days of TV animation — and they still do today. When actors of color were hired to work on cartoons, they often had to perform those demeaning stereotypes; for instance, Disney cast Black voice actors to perform broadly racist minstrel caricatures throughout the 1940s, like the crows in Dumbo or the aforementioned Song of the South.

The racism inherent in these roles made actors of color increasingly reluctant to play them. So rather than write better parts for the actors, Hollywood grew more reluctant to write parts for people of color at all. This ugly cycle increased the rarity of diverse parts for diverse actors. In children’s animation, however, because the voice actors weren’t visible, the stereotypes persisted — just often with white actors voicing the parts, as if that were enough to ward off complaints of prejudice.

Additionally, animation studios tend to hire a small sample of character actors to voice multiple parts, including any ethnic roles a show may need filled. The prevalence of this practice has led to a hugely whitewashed profession that continues today.

Longtime screen and voice actor Dante Basco (Hook, Avatar: The Last Airbender) told me it’s taken a long time for voice casting to be taken as seriously as onscreen casting when it comes to racial diversity. “The reality is, it wasn’t seen as something important for many years, ’cause, you know, you’re [just] doing a cartoon,” Basco told me. But the Filipino American actor, well known for starring ethnic roles in animated series including Avatar and American Dragon: Jake Long, explained that his career has benefited from race-conscious casting, in those rare instances when it is prioritized.

“I always felt sometimes like they brought me in, like, ‘Oh, Dante, you’re an Asian celebrity, you can play this Asian role,’” he said. “And so I was probably one of the earliest ones [to get hired when productions] were accurately trying to cast the character close to” their ethnicity.

Still, he said, diversifying roles and opportunities for actors in the animation industry isn’t as simple as giving everyone a part matching their ethnic heritage.

“The pendulum swings both ways,” he said. “I don’t know if [racially conscious casting] is necessarily important on every single thing … I always tell people that if I had to wait around for a Filipino American role, I would not have a career.”

Basco’s pragmatism underscores just how hard it is to find any diverse characters in TV animation. When diverse parts are hard to come by, it can be prohibitive to silo a group of actors of color into their ethnic or racial niches.

Clark agrees that the lack of diverse roles makes it much harder for voice actors of color to sustain their careers. “There’s too much historical baggage, and too few opportunities for actors of color (who are seldom given a fair shot to read for white roles in the first place),” she said.

Their concerns that an attempt to move to strictly race-accurate casting could hurt actors of color more than help them point to larger issues within the industry. After all, the current high-profile movement to diversify all of Hollywood, including moving away from whitewashed casting, has also highlighted just how overwhelmingly non-diverse the voice acting industry has been.

The voice acting industry is diversifying — but at a frustratingly slow pace

We rarely see the people behind the mic of an animated character. Which means you might not realize just how stacked the deck is against voice actors of color.

“It took seven years of pushing, seven years of going to auditions and stealing the audition documents for all of the characters that I wasn’t being invited to read for,” Toronto-based voice actor Deven Mack told Vox. While Mack has found success in the Toronto animation industry, he says he had a wake-up call when he moved from doing voice acting on the internet to doing professional studio work.

“I started out doing things online on websites, like Newgrounds and YouTube. And that was a world where absolutely nobody knew what I looked like,” he said. “Over the years, I probably voiced Super Mario and Luigi for at least 50 different fan cartoons. … People think that I’m a white guy on the internet.” With professional studios, however, he found that he could rarely book auditions, and, when he did, was rarely asked to read for any part except that of “the Black kid.”

“Once I [got] an agent, I realized [that] I’m now auditioning only once every six months. Online, I’m playing everything. I’m playing cats, dogs, white characters, Black characters, old men. But here [in studios], it’s just the Black kid. And if there is no ‘the Black kid,’ then I’m just sitting at home.”

Even when Mack did eventually book his first studio role — as the character Lab Rat in a 2006 series called Grossology — the wake-up calls about the realities of the industry kept coming.

“There were lots of good people there, but the assumption still the whole time [was], ‘Oh, he’s a 17-year-old Black kid,’” Mack told me. “‘The only thing he can play is the Black kid. He can’t lose his accent. We just assume that. So we’re not even going to give him other stuff to do.’ So everybody else on the show was playing additional voices … and making more money than me as a result, because they just assumed I couldn’t do it.”

Mack was running into a lack of diversity that affects nearly every aspect of both the animation and video game industries. A 2019 Annenberg Institute survey of gender in animation found that only 3 percent of all animation roles (including both films and television series) go to women of color, across the broad spectrum of racial diversity. On the other side of the reel, that stat is even worse: Just 1 percent of producers are women of color. In 2017, another Annenberg study found that while 27 percent of animated films had Asian directors, between 2007 and 2016, only one animated film had a Black director at the helm.

Such an extreme lack of diversity on the production side of things manifests in a lack of diversity in the kinds of TV shows, films, and games that are made. The question of whose stories get told and who gets to tell them is left up to a production that often lacks a plethora of viewpoints from the start. And because voice acting is often considered to be “invisible,” it’s all too easy for a white actor to take the rare role that does feature a character of color.

It doesn’t help that producers are often reluctant to look beyond established actors. “Voice acting requires significant technical acting abilities — automated dialogue replacement, timing restrictions, facial sync, battle chatter, breathing techniques — so finding qualified actors is limited to skilled and experienced talent,” one gaming CEO told Vox sister site The Verge in February.

“That’s a sad thing about our industry, but a truth,” Bob-Waksberg told IndieWire. “The white actors have had the opportunity to have the experiences over and over again.”

These factors can lead to serious career struggles and even psychological hurdles for voice actors of color. At a loss for how to advance his career, Mack said he spent years attending career workshops, only to be told he was “too good” to be there. “I’m here because I’m not working. So I don’t know what else to do. There must be something wrong with me. Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am,” he recalled thinking. In desperation, he’d steal scripts and request to read parts he hadn’t been called in to audition for, just to show what else he could do. When he finally did get cast in his first lead role, playing a white character, Mack said an immediate shift happened in the parts made available to him.

Mack’s story shares themes with that of the voice actor Bill Butts. Butts, a Black Kansas-born actor based in Los Angeles, got his start in theater before moving into voice roles; he’s most recently worked on popular anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and One Punch Man.

“Unfortunately, growing up, I didn’t really see a lot of people of color in big roles at all, let alone at all in the business,” he told Vox. “You’d see Caucasian folk voicing Black characters, but you hardly ever see Black actors.” He pointed out that there tend to be more opportunities for voice actors of color in English-language animated series than in other voice-reliant industries like anime and gaming, even if the offered parts are usually just “Black guys and monsters.” But other voiceover industries lack even these stereotypical roles for nonwhite actors to fill. “When it comes to anime and video games, unfortunately the reality is that people of color are only given opportunities to read for people of color, which is extremely rare,” he said.

Butts describes taking every acting class he could find, “studying theater, Shakespeare, contemporary, the works, to get yourself to a level where you’re so good that agents and studios couldn’t really even tell … they’d be like, ‘Well, what else can we use this guy for?’” And still, though he’s established himself in the industry, parts available for any ethnicity don’t always come his way. “There [are] five big shows right now [where] I didn’t get to read for a single white character, [and] I know it’s not just me. I mean, I took all the classes, and, you know, we have similar agents, but the opportunities aren’t given. … There starts to be a bit of asking and begging to get these opportunities.”

But beyond actors resorting to reading parts they aren’t called to audition for, ideas for how to diversify the industry in the long term aren’t exactly a hot Hollywood topic. And not everyone agrees on what the path forward should be.

Solutions for diversifying the industry are a mixed bag

Though the roles available to actors of color are still overwhelmingly restricted to ethnic stereotypes, things are slowly moving in a positive direction. Some industry organizations are starting to actively work toward diversifying opportunities for their members — and, as a result, the voice-acting landscape.

Butts and Clark are members of the Coalition of Dubbing Actors (CODA), a union-like industry organization whose stated goal is “to build a community, increase open communication among actors, provide actor-led industry education, and change the culture and impression of dubbing work.” Clark also recently joined several other members of the voice acting community in forming Animated POC & Allies (APOC), a group dedicated to pursuing equality in the industry. “Up until recently,” Butts told Vox, if an actor brought up the issue of problematic casting, “you were either ignored, yelled at, or finally you find yourself getting nothing for months.”

“Honestly, it’s not a fixed system yet, but the big thing would be to have the conversations continue,” Butts said. “It’s still an incredible struggle. But the big thing right now is people are open to talk about it.”

Basco agreed. “That trend happening now, I think it’s cool. I think it’s healthy,” he said. “I think it speaks to a conscious industry that’s really trying to get it right.”

As part of the movement toward a less homogeneous industry, some voice actors of color are making choices like those of Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell, despite not having similar name recognition and thus facing more risk in doing so. Butts told Vox he won’t read for parts that involve characters of other nonwhite ethnicities. “Nine times out of 10, [if a studio needs] a Black Middle Eastern [actor], they can get one. They exist. I’m not going to [step] on people’s toes.”

Butts’s approach has been echoed in the media by figures like #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, who argued in a recent NPR interview about voice casting that “people who have the most context to play those particular characters are the ones that should get the opportunities.” Reign, however, also felt that only white actors should play white roles; instead, she argued, creatives should focus on diversifying the roles they write and cast. “People who have the most context to play those particular characters are the ones that should get the opportunities,” she says. “And that also gives the opportunities for the actors and actresses behind the scenes, behind the voiceover work, to get their foot in the door.”

With the present dearth of such diverse roles, however, it’s hard to see Reign’s approach working as an industry-wide prescription for change. And Mack pointed out that since many voice actors of color don’t fit the industry’s idea of what an “ethnic” actor is supposed to sound like, any approach to casting that overemphasizes ethnicity could backfire.

“Unfortunately, that’s really not going to fly,” he said, “because when you do have people [of color] who have a specific way of speaking — if you have a lot of Black actors right now who sound white, quote-unquote — they’re not going to book the Black roles as often.”

Basco agrees. “I think to be conscious of [race and ethnicity] is important,” he said, “but at the end of the day, you want to get good actors that are going to play and tell these stories in a real way, in a good way. In the end, we’re not doing documentary filmmaking — we’re doing storytelling.” Especially in cases where the story being told is a fantasy with fewer roots in reality, there are more opportunities for race-blind casting to be successful.

Still, Butts notes that the current push to allow Black actors to play Black roles is crucially tied to the real-world repercussions that lack of representation can bring — after all, the urgency of the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality galvanized the conversation about voice acting to begin with.

“It has been now three weeks for me since an officer just gave me a dirty look for simply walking on the sidewalk,” he said. “It has been a few months since I was followed for about six blocks for simply driving … It’s been literally a couple of days since I had to ask to read for a white character.”

In other words, Black actors can draw upon experiences, he said, “that [white] people don’t have to really understand.” That extra level of authenticity can make a story much more meaningful. And because animated storytelling can often be highly moralistic or instructive, it’s even more crucial that a given production is practicing what it’s preaching — like equality, justice, and racial harmony. The turbulent times we’re in have underscored how important those values actually are in real life, which is why it matters that people like Slate are putting them into action.

“I think we need to come to a place ideally of everybody getting to audition for everything,” Mack told Vox, “but still taking into account who has actually lived these ethnic experiences and can bring something really, really unique and culturally relevant to a role in their performance as a result.”

Joe Biden should do everything at once

President-Elect Joe Biden
Use it or lose it. | Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post/Getty Images

How to succeed in hyperpolarized politics: run a blitz.

Joe Biden will become the US president during an extraordinary moment in history, one that could very well prove to be the calm before the storm, a brief prelude to dissolution and illiberalism. Trump’s bid to become a full-on authoritarian failed, but Democrats could easily lose the House in a 2022 backlash. Biden could face total congressional opposition, even impeachment — as the recent baseless “stolen election” narrative has shown, if Republicans don’t have any evidence, they’ll just make something up.

Or maybe Democrats will keep the House and take the Senate in 2022, and legislation will become possible! Who knows? (The Georgia Senate runoffs are another big question mark.) If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past five years, it’s that I definitely don’t know what is going to happen next, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else does either.

What we do know is that Republicans will wage full-on war on Biden from the second he takes office. They will generate fake conspiracies and controversies through right-wing media and social media. Conservative voters will be told again and again that Biden and Kamala Harris are uniquely dangerous traitors engaged in all sorts of elaborate evil plots. The entire conservative movement, from top to bottom, will view limiting Biden to one term as its primary strategic objective. And the movement will engage in misinformation, norm violation, procedural fuckery, and outright lawbreaking, if necessary, to achieve that objective.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images
President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani speaks during a public hearing on November 25, 2020, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Trump and Giuliani have spread false claims about the election.

The right will be what it is, what it has been becoming for decades now; expecting anything else would be madness. The question is how the Biden administration should behave, knowing all this.

It would be foolish for anyone to claim to have all the answers, or any of the answers really, but in my mind the most pointed lesson about how to behave in a hopelessly partisan environment comes from Donald Trump himself.

Before getting to that (suspense!), it’s instructive to take a look back at some of the experiences of the administration for which Biden was vice president.

Obama’s efforts to collect and spend “political capital” were mostly for naught

When Barack Obama took office in 2009 in a deepening recession, he expected to receive some Republican help bailing out the economy. It’s easy today to look back on that expectation as naive, but at the time it wasn’t unreasonable. The economy was on the brink of disaster, the need was clear, and the depth of conservative backlash was not yet as evident as it would become later.

What happened instead was a wall of opposition from Republicans, built on bad-faith objections about deficit spending and government waste. With so little room to maneuver, Democrats were forced to negotiate with the tiny handful of moderate Republicans and the large handful of conservative Democrats in the Senate, holding the stimulus bill down to their arbitrary spending caps. In the end, the stimulus bill passed with zero Republican votes in the House and just three in the Senate. The result was an inadequate economic boost and a sluggish recovery that hobbled the rest of Obama’s presidency.

Since it was widely agreed that “political capital” was limited and Democrats could only take on one fight at a time, the question then became what to tackle next. The answer proved to be health care reform, perceived as a policy better developed and more widely supported in the Democratic caucus.

In July 2009, Democrats in the House introduced a health care plan based on a system that had been road-tested by Mitt Romney in his recent tenure as governor in Massachusetts. Many Democrats thought the process would take a few months, and then Congress could move on to climate change. Instead, again and again, Republicans lured Democrats into extended negotiations, only to withdraw support at the last minute over some new bad-faith objection (see: “death panels”). That left Democrats negotiating with their most conservative members, who did much the same thing (Joe Lieberman, may his name live in infamy).

In the end, talks dragged on until March 2010, when Obama finally signed the Affordable Care Act. It got no Republican votes, in the Senate or the House.

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images
President Barack Obama and walks back to the Oval Office with Vice President Joe Biden after a statement on the Affordable Care Act in April 2014.

Then it was finally time for climate change, and the strategy there was yet more clever sequencing. Obama told Republicans that if they didn’t cooperate on climate change legislation, he would regulate greenhouse gases via the Environmental Protection Agency, which would offer less flexibility and less ability to compensate hard-hit communities. The idea was that the threat of EPA regulations — made inevitable by the Supreme Court’s 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA judgment that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to the Clean Air Act — would frighten Republicans to the legislative table, where they could better defend their interests.

Instead, Republicans vowed implacable opposition to all of it. They would fight furiously against legislation when it was on the table and then fight regulations just as furiously when they came up.

To a cool Vulcan mind like Obama’s, it seemed entirely irrational, against Republicans’ own best interests. At that point, he had not fully internalized the extent to which the conservative movement has become unleashed id, driven more by right-wing media than by Republican politicians, fueled by resentment and organized purely to defeat the libs.

In June 2009, when the climate bill passed the House, it got eight Republican votes. By mid-2010, it was dead in the water, with no hope of any Republican votes in the Senate. Democrats no longer had their filibuster-proof 60 seats, and there was nothing like the same support in the caucus that health care reform generated, so it never came to a Senate vote. It ended with a whimper, not a bang.

As promised, Obama’s EPA began slowly rolling out regulations, one at a time. It wasn’t until late in his first term that auto mileage standards were finalized and into his second term before EPA got to power plants. Republicans were able to keep Obama’s Clean Power Plan tied up in court through the end of his second term. Then Trump took power and began a simultaneous all-fronts assault on Obama’s regulations, unrolling them so fast it was difficult to even keep track.

Two-party partisan politics really is a zero-sum game

The theme of these stories is that Democrats relied on clever sequencing over and over again, imagining some amount of political capital (“credibility”) that they could husband and spend strategically to get assistance across the aisle, at every juncture underestimating the ferocity and unanimity of Republican opposition. They kept behaving as though they would find good-faith negotiating partners, as though they were still in the postwar American era of relatively low (or at least manageable) polarization.

What too few of them realized was that they were already in a new era of near-total polarization, with the population sorted into like-minded enclaves, a bifurcated media ecosystem nurturing stacked (and diametrically opposed) “mega-identities,” and voters motivated primarily by “negative partisanship,” which is to say, hatred of the other side.

Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Armed Trump supporters at a protest over the election results in Salem, Oregon, on November 21.

A fully polarized two-party system really is a zero-sum game. Any victories or gains by one side come at the other side’s expense, even if the victory secures shared goals. The rational course for the party out of power is to fight with full intensity against everything, always, and that’s what Republicans did under Obama. With scarcely any exceptions, from 2010 through 2020, they pushed in every case for maximal partisan advantage, no matter the stakes or possible cost.

The GOP has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite a few close calls, but otherwise, its unprincipled pursuit of raw power has paid off handsomely. The party captured state legislatures in 2010 and was able to gerrymander itself minority rule in several states. It practically shut down Congress as a legislative body for six years of Obama’s term. It blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and for its efforts got Neil Gorsuch. It ignored Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wishes and for its efforts got a 6-3 conservative Court majority that could last for generations.

Republicans blocked so many Democratic judicial nominations that Senate leader Harry Reid had to get rid of the judicial filibuster to keep the courts staffed. Then, when the GOP took control of the presidency and Senate, it used the absence of the filibuster to pack the federal courts full of hyper-ideological, young, often woefully unqualified judges.

Rather than paying any price for total partisan warfare, Republicans were rewarded in 2016 with the presidency and both houses of Congress. After carrying the country to the brink of authoritarian crisis, it has now lost the House and the presidency. But Joe Biden has been left to tackle a virtually uncontrolled pandemic and millions of people out of work and on the verge of homelessness or food insecurity.

The GOP will likely retain control of the Senate, which means there will be no adequate economic recovery package and none of Biden’s ambitious campaign plans will come to fruition. It has kept control of key state legislatures, so it will be able to gerrymander itself an advantage for another decade.

Gerrymandering, illustrated.
Gerrymandering, illustrated.

The elections of 2022 will be another partisan brawl, and the odds are stacked against Democrats; the president’s party has lost seats in every first-term midterm in the past 100 years, save three (1934, 1998, 2002). If Republicans gain full control of Congress, impeachment becomes a real possibility, even if conviction is very unlikely.

It’s a grim situation, and Biden is starting out behind the eight-ball. How should he proceed?

Biden should run a blitz

Here we return to the lesson that Trump has to teach Biden about life in hyperpolarized politics.

To wit: blitz. Do everything at once.

No matter what the Biden administration does, it will be accused of socialism and corruption by the right. And the past several years have richly demonstrated that conservative parts of the country, particularly rural areas and low-density suburbs, are almost completely captured by right-wing media, from Fox on the TV to AM conservative radio to Sinclair-owned local news to the profusion of shady Facebook sources and groups, where misinformation is rapid and rampant.

Democrats badly need to address this media asymmetry. Despite what conservatives have convinced themselves, mainstream media outlets like CNN are not analogous to Fox, and Democrats have no comparable radio, local TV, or social media operations to carry their messages and narratives straight to voters where they live.

But that is long-term work, and 2022 is right around the corner.

The only thing Biden will have real control over is his administration and what it does. And his North Star, his organizing principle, should be doing as much good on as many fronts as fast as possible. Blitz.

By constantly blundering forward, Trump has helped chart which US institutions and norms provide real resistance and which don’t. The courts have tangibly restrained Trump; they have been the primary bulwark against him. But the chattering of the media and the political classes? Moral outrage? Precedent and tradition? Civil protest?

All of these have proven gossamer. Trump charged right through them like they were cotton candy. By constantly acting, being on the offensive, generating new stories and controversies, he simply overwhelmed the ability of the system to fasten on any one thing.

Biden should learn the lesson. All that matters is what gets done, put on paper and into law. The rest is vapor.

The administration should staff up as rapidly as possible with ambitious young progressives and tell every single civil servant that the next two years are going to be a full sprint. Start immediately rewriting and reimplementing the environmental, public health, and worker safety regulations Trump has weakened. Reverse his immigration policies. Drop his lawsuits.

Reassess the social cost of carbon. Replace Trump’s weak Affordable Clean Energy rule with more stringent carbon rules for the power sector. Ditch EPA’s “secret science” rule and restock scientific advisory boards with actual scientists. Put a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling leases on public land. Pledge the purchasing power of the federal government — around $500 billion a year — toward clean energy technology.

USPS mail trucks
One significant change the federal government could make: electrify postal trucks.

Through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), direct federal financing toward carbon reduction and clean energy across agencies. Use the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to reject regulations from any agency that do not include both a climate and equity “screen” to ensure that they reduce emissions and help the most vulnerable. Use the powers conferred by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill to integrate climate risks into the financial system.

I’ve written more about what Biden can do on climate change without Congress. Vox’s Dylan Matthews took a wider policy view with 10 big things Biden can do with executive powers, from forgiving student loan debt to reigning in factory farming. More ideas can be found here, here, here, and here, among other places. There’s no shortage of ways for Biden to deploy the powers of the presidency, and he should maximize every one of them.

The new rule of partisan politics is to act, not react

All of these moves will elicit howls of outrage and court challenges from the right. Many will also infuriate the left, since they will inevitably fall short of Biden’s grand campaign promises.

Biden can’t control any of that. Doing less, negotiating more, relying on clever sequencing, chasing after receding promises of cooperation — none of that will solve anything, any more than it did for Obama. He can reach across the aisle, make it clear his door is open, but he shouldn’t wait around for anyone to walk in.

Biden’s best chance is to try to overwhelm the system the way Trump did, by doing so much that it’s impossible to make any one thing into a lasting story. He should launch so many simultaneous reforms that there’s no time for right-wing media to make up lies about all of them or for the Supreme Court to hear them all. He should ignore bad-faith attacks and stay relentlessly on message about what’s gotten done and what’s getting done next. He should, at every juncture, get caught trying to make government work better for ordinary people.

To succeed, all this must happen alongside Democratic Party efforts to improve messaging and media, get persistent party infrastructure on the ground in communities the party has neglected, and innovate on voter outreach and persuasion. (Aaron Strauss has some good ideas on that front.)

But Biden has something the rest of the party at the federal level does not have: the power to improve Americans’ lives in a visible way. More than anything else, cynicism about government’s ability to do that is corroding US politics. The best thing Biden can do, morally and politically, is act, as much and as fast as possible, and then talk about it, and do more of it, and talk about it more. (And he should be clear about exactly who stands in the way of bigger, better changes, and why his name is Mitch McConnell.)

The rest of it, he should ignore: the Washington chatter about the latest Republican accusations or catty infighting among Democratic factions, the cable news story or Twitter drama of the day, the latest offensive thing Trump or some Trump surrogate said, all of it. Bulldoze through it.

The president has limited ability to control political discourse and drama, but he has an enormous capacity to change policy and direct resources. Biden should use that power while he has it, without hesitation or apology.

The high rate of executions during Trump’s last weeks in office, explained

A person standing in front of the Justice Department building holds signs that read “Abolish the death penalty” and “No more state-sanctioned executions.”
Anti-death-penalty activist Judy Coode demonstrates in front of the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, on July 13. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Trump has scheduled more federal executions than any president in at least a century.

When five Black and Latino teenagers were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park in 1989, prominent businessman Donald Trump bought newspaper advertisements calling on New York state to “bring back the death penalty” in the wake of the attack. Little did the country know, Trump’s views on capital punishment then would inform his presidency decades later: In July, the Trump administration reinstated the death penalty at the federal level after a 17-year hiatus.

The return of federal executions demonstrates an unprecedented and grim picture of Trump’s legacy in contrast to previous administrations. The Washington Post’s editorial board described it as a “sickening spree of executions.” To put it in perspective, only three people had been executed by the federal government in the past 50 years. Meanwhile, in less than five months, eight people have already been put to death by Trump’s Justice Department, with five more executions scheduled to happen before Trump leaves office.

“The Trump administration’s policy regarding a death penalty is just historically abhorrent,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, a bipartisan organization that does not take a position for or against the death penalty, but rather is critical of the way capital punishment is administered.

If the remaining executions in December are carried out — making a total of 10 for 2020 — it will mark more civilian executions in a single calendar year than any other presidency in the 20th and 21st centuries. “No one has conducted this number of federal civilian executions in this short period of time in American history,” Dunham added.

Of the five upcoming federal executions during the lame-duck period, four of them are Black men, while the fifth will be the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years. These federal executions come in concert with the rallying cry for racial justice and an overhaul of America’s policing and criminal justice systems that has left a disproportionate number of Black people arrested, jailed, convicted, and dead. More than 44 percent of the remaining 54 people on federal death row are Black, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, even though Black people make up only 13 percent of the US population.

“The fact that we’re having a record-high number of federal executions, at the same time that we’re near a record low in state executions, in the middle of a pandemic, shows how much the Trump administration is either out of touch or that it cannot resist gratuitous acts of cruelty,” Dunham said, adding that only seven state executions will occur this year — the lowest since states began carrying out executions in colonial times. “Nobody needs to carry out an execution during a pandemic.”

Just last week, the Justice Department also published a rule that would allow other methods for capital punishment, such as firing squads, lethal gas, and electrocutions; Attorney General Bill Barr is currently racing to finalize that rule.

Trump’s push for additional methods and a number of federal executions will be part of his presidential legacy and highlights a stark divide between the administration’s actions and dwindling support for the death penalty among Americans.

Four Black men are scheduled for federal execution weeks before Trump leaves office

On November 19, Orlando Hall, a Black man sentenced to death for kidnapping, rape, and murder in 1994, became the eighth and latest inmate to be executed by the federal government since it reinstated federal executions this summer. He is also the first in more than a century to be put to death during a lame-duck period. Shortly before Hall was executed by lethal injection, the US Supreme Court had denied his request to stop the execution — with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the majority ruling.

While Hall is the second Black man to be executed out of the eight so far since July, the remaining men scheduled to be put to death are all Black. “In an apparent effort to forestall criticism that the federal executions were racist, the administration selected white prisoners first,” Dunham said; the executions were reinstated as racial justice protests broke out across the country this summer. “What’s striking about that, though, is that it still tells us a lot about whose lives matter because only one of the people executed so far was convicted for killing an African American.”

Brandon Bernard, convicted of kidnapping and murder, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on December 10. Bernard, who is also Black, was only 18 years old when he committed crimes that resulted in the deaths of a young white married couple in 1999. But five of the nine surviving jurors who supported the death penalty at the time now believe it is inappropriate. Even Angela Moore, the federal prosecutor who helped put Bernard on death row, wrote an op-ed in the Indianapolis Star making a case for why the federal government should let him live.

“I always took pride in representing the United States as a federal prosecutor, and I think executing Brandon would be a terrible stain on the nation’s honor,” Moore wrote.

During his time in prison, Bernard has been a model prisoner, mentoring at-risk youth. “Having learned so much since 2000 about the maturation of the human brain and having seen Brandon grow into a humble, remorseful adult fully capable of living peacefully in prison, how can we say he is among that tiny group of offenders who must be put to death?” Moore wrote.

Alfred Bourgeois, a Black truck driver in Texas who was convicted of abusing and killing his 2-year-old daughter in 2002, is scheduled for execution the day after Bernard. Bourgeois’s execution was originally scheduled for January 2020 but was halted by a federal judge who blocked the Trump administration’s early moves to bring back the federal death penalty. Bourgeois’s lawyers then argued to suspend his death sentence on the grounds that he’s entitled to an intellectual disability evaluation under the Eighth Amendment.

The next two inmates on death row are scheduled for execution in 2021 just a few days before Biden’s inauguration. Cory Johnson, who was convicted of murdering seven people during a drug trafficking operation in Richmond, Virginia, is scheduled for lethal injection on January 14. Like Bourgeois, Johnson’s lawyers argue that there is overwhelming evidence that Johnson has intellectual disabilities.

On January 15, Dustin Higgs is scheduled to be put to death for a crime committed in 1996. The Justice Department claims that Higgs kidnapped and murdered three women, but the Daily Beast reports that while he was present at the scene of the crime, witnesses confirm that Higgs did not kill anyone. Co-defendant Willis Haynes fired the shots, but the Justice Department argues that Higgs coerced his friend Haynes into committing the crime.

But Haynes, who was sentenced to life in prison, confirmed through a signed affidavit that Higgs did not coerce him, saying, “the prosecution’s theory of our case was bullshit. Dustin didn’t threaten me. I was not scared of him. Dustin didn’t make me do anything that night or ever.”

The other person on the Justice Department’s execution schedule is Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row and the first woman set to be federally executed in nearly 70 years. In 2004, Montgomery killed a pregnant woman and then attempted to pass off the baby as her own. Montgomery, who Dunham said has severe mental illness due to an abusive past, was initially scheduled for execution by lethal injection on December 8, but it was delayed due to her lawyers contracting Covid-19.

The Justice Department is fast-tracking new rules on the death penalty before Biden’s inauguration

Trump is the first president in 17 years to reinstate federal executions, despite a recent poll showing that a record-low number of Americans consider the death penalty “morally acceptable.” Even across party lines, the death penalty has been a historically contentious issue. Since the US Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, state governments have been doing most executions, though those have declined in the past two decades, too.

In addition to pushing through federal executions over the past five months, the Justice Department published a new rule to the Federal Register on Friday that would allow the use of other methods for capital punishment. The new regulation reintroduces the use of firing squads and electrocutions for federal executions in addition to lethal injections. The new rule is set to go into effect in 30 days instead of the generally allotted 60 days. As it stands for the remaining inmates awaiting execution, only Higgs appears not to have a method of execution stated on the Justice Department’s schedule — the rest are marked for lethal injection.

The Trump administration’s move, among many others, is another thing President-elect Biden — who has signaled at various times that he would end the federal death penalty — will have to face once in office. Biden, a political veteran, has repeatedly addressed criticism during his presidential campaign over the role he played in passing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, also known as the 1994 crime bill, signed by President Bill Clinton. The bill allowed the expansion of crimes eligible for the federal death penalty, which aided the conviction of some of the inmates now awaiting execution. (Hall was only eligible for the death penalty because the crime bill added kidnapping resulting in death to the list of crimes.)

The Trump administration is trying to cut corners and fast-track dozens of rules that range from oil-drilling in the Arctic to immigrant restrictions, as well as the death penalty rule, before Biden takes over. If the rules are finalized, the new administration would have to go through a convoluted process to roll them back. But since Biden has pledged to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example, the new death penalty rule may virtually not be of use in his administration.

“Unlike the environmental regulations or policies making it more difficult to negotiate on trade or world safety, the Biden administration can take as much time as it wants to undo this regulation,” Dunham said. “Undoing it isn’t that difficult. I believe the regulation is intended to make it easier for the Trump administration to carry out the remaining lame-duck executions.”

The bigger question is how Biden’s administration will transform a historically racist criminal justice system while also healing the wounds brought by the Trump administration.

“The Trump administration’s conduct, when it comes to criminal legal issues, has been highly political, and mostly out of step with the direction that most of the United States is heading,” Dunham said. “When push came to shove, it reverted to policies that are more extreme in their cruelty and the arbitrariness of their application than anything else we have seen in modern American history.”

The Trump administration’s push for federal executions, while the country has been preoccupied with the election and the pandemic, is no different.

Trump’s pardon shenanigans are ramping up

Rudy Giuliani speaks to the press about various lawsuits related to the 2020 election, inside the Republican National Committee headquarters on November 19, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Flynn is likely just the start.

Outgoing President Donald Trump kicked off what will likely be the first in a series of pardons of his associates last week, with his pardon for former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators back in 2017 — but that’s not all Trump pardoned him for.

The typical way pardons work is that the recipient is pardoned for specific crimes. But Flynn’s stands out because it also has preemptive aspects — that is, it’s written broadly to try to pardon Flynn for possible crimes he hasn’t even been charged with.

Preemptive pardons aren’t unprecedented, but they are unusual, and come far closer to a sort of presidential declaration that the president’s associates should be above the law. And Trump’s use of the tactic for Flynn hints at just how far he could go in his final weeks in office.

Several of Trump’s former top campaign advisers — Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone — have been charged with or convicted of specific crimes, for which they could be pardoned. (Trump already commuted Roger Stone’s sentence but has not yet granted him a full pardon.)

The universe of potential preemptive pardons, though, is far broader. For while many Trump associates have been charged with crimes, an even greater number have been investigated but have not faced any charges.

For instance, there’s the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt reported Tuesday morning that, “as recently as last week,” Giuliani discussed “the possibility of receiving a pre-emptive pardon” from Trump (though Giuliani denied this on Twitter). Federal prosecutors in New York have probed Giuliani’s business activities and indicted two of his associates.

And some of Trump’s allies are urging him to take preemptive pardons even further. “I’d tell President Trump to pardon yourself and pardon your family,” Fox host Sean Hannity said Monday. It remains unclear whether Trump will try to go that far (particularly, a self-pardon may not be legal and the president can’t pardon state crimes), but it’s clear enough that his lame-duck pardon shenanigans are only getting started.

The Flynn pardon is very broad, and much of it is preemptive

In December 2017, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements (lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador). Since then, his case has become a protracted legal saga — first Flynn tried to withdraw his plea, then a new Justice Department team sought to have the case against Flynn thrown out, and the judge in the case, Emmet Sullivan, has been weighing whether he should permit this latter move.

Last week, Trump announced that he had pardoned Flynn, but no documentation for that pardon clarifying its parameters was released until Monday night. Here’s what it looks like:

Court filing
Flynn’s pardon

The pardon begins by listing the crime to which Flynn pleaded guilty: making false statements to federal investigators. But it covers a whole lot more than that. Flynn is also pardoned for:

  • “any and all possible offenses arising from the facts set forth in” the charging documents in his case (Flynn also admitted making false statements in Foreign Agents Registration Act filings about his work for the government of Turkey)
  • any offenses “that might arise, or be charged, claimed, or asserted in connection with the proceedings” in his case (for instance, there has been some discussion about whether Flynn could be charged with perjury by admitting his guilt under oath in court and then changing course)
  • “any and all possible offenses within the investigatory authority or jurisdiction” of special counsel Robert Mueller, and “any and all possible offenses arising out of facts and circumstances known to, identified by, or in any manner related to” Mueller’s investigation (that is, if Mueller found anything else that Flynn could be criminally charged for, the pardon is meant to cover that)

So this is not a typical pardon, targeted at crimes someone has actually been charged with or convicted of. It’s a preemptive pardon, designed to shield Flynn from being charged in the future.

In that respect, it’s similar to the unconditional preemptive pardon President Gerald Ford granted his former boss and predecessor Richard Nixon — a sweeping pardon for any criminal offenses Nixon may have committed during the course of his presidency.

The Flynn pardon is not quite as broad as that, but it’s clearly tailored to try to wipe out the possibility that Flynn will face any further charges connected to the current case against him, or in any way related to the Mueller investigation.

Will Trump issue more preemptive pardons?

The New York Times has already confirmed that one preemptive pardon is under discussion — for Giuliani.

Late last year, news broke that federal prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) were scrutinizing Giuliani’s business and finances, exploring his contacts with former top Ukrainian officials, and investigating a host of potential crimes (including obstruction of justice, money laundering, serving as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, mail fraud, and wire fraud).

Two of Giuliani’s associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were indicted on charges of campaign finance violations that October. The pair allegedly had been helping Giuliani make connections with Ukrainian officials who claimed to know of scandalous information about the Biden family, that could be helpful to Trump. (The revelation of Trump and Giuliani’s efforts to get dirt on Biden from Ukrainian officials eventually resulted in Trump’s impeachment.)

This year, there have been few new developments in the matter. CNN reported that the investigation into Giuliani “was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, limiting prosecutors’ ability to interview witnesses, collect further evidence, and meet with the grand jury.” Giuliani has not been charged, but if this investigation is serious and still underway, he’d obviously be hoping for a pardon while his client is still in charge of the executive branch.

There has also been some discussion — at least from Sean Hannity — about preemptive pardons for members of the Trump family.

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. faced scrutiny in the Mueller investigation but ultimately wasn’t charged. Trump himself also was probed for obstructing justice, but Mueller opted not to charge him, in part because Trump was the sitting president.

President Trump could attempt to pardon himself, but it’s unclear if that would be legal (a popular theory among the #Resistance is that Trump will resign early and let newly installed President Mike Pence pardon him). One issue here, though, is that the president has no power to pardon state crimes — and he is currently under investigation for potential bank and insurance fraud in New York state.

Now, if Trump truly does plan to run for president again in 2024, he might have political reasons to hold back on the broadest assertions of his pardon powers. Then again, he might feel he’s appropriately laid the groundwork to defend those moves, having disparaged any investigations of himself or anyone close to him as “witch hunts.”

Some who want pardons are backing Trump’s “stolen election” lies

Finally, there’s been a notable pattern among some who are likely seeking pardons: They’ve tended to champion Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Giuliani, of course, has been in charge of Trump’s post-election legal fight, spreading false claims of widespread voter fraud while reportedly seeking a preemptive pardon.

Attorney Sidney Powell — Flynn’s lawyer — stood up with Giuliani at a press conference two weeks ago making particularly bizarre claims of fraud. (She asserted that the voting systems company Dominion rigged the vote against Trump, in part because there was “communist money” involved and that the company had ties to the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.) Powell has filed lawsuits as well filled with similarly false claims. (Flynn himself has said “there is no doubt in my mind” that Trump won in a “landslide.”)

Bannon, too, has been spreading false information advancing Trump’s stolen election narrative, and has been advising Giuliani behind the scenes, according to the Washington Post.

Whether or not there was any explicit quid pro quo involved here, it’s clear that all these people were interested in pardons (in Powell’s case, for her client), and that all these people knew the importance of pleasing the man who could issue those pardons. Indeed, the main champions of Trump’s post-election fraud lies have been people who wanted Trump to pardon somebody — which is revealing of how much bad faith is at play here.

“The stakes are life and death”: Addiction treatment’s Covid-19 challenge

A door is painted with a message to stop selling heroin on a street in a neighborhood with a high rate of poverty and illegal drug use on October 14, 2016, in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The government eased access to drug addiction treatment during the pandemic. Now that could go away.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced much of the US to lock down in the spring of 2020, officials and experts worried the necessary social distancing measures would make another public health crisis — the opioid epidemic — worse. Addiction treatment is traditionally done in person, and restrictions on gatherings and closed businesses would make it much less accessible.

So the federal government responded by easing rules for getting into treatment virtually — making it easier for treatment providers to retain patients and attract new ones. Even before the pandemic, experts had been calling for making treatment easier to get in the US, and the new rules were a big step forward.

But with vaccines for the coronavirus moving through clinical trials and the end of the pandemic in sight, advocates are worried that the old rules will snap back into place — making it harder, once again, to get people into addiction treatment.

Officials relaxed federal rules in several ways. They allowed doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, an evidence-based medication for opioid addiction, over video or audio calls without requiring an in-person evaluation. They also made it easier to prescribe the medication across state lines, which previously required prescribers to be licensed in both states. And they eased rules for take-home doses of methadone, another proven opioid addiction medication, which traditionally is administered daily to patients at an in-person clinic.

State and federal officials also made it possible for public health insurance programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, to pay for telemedicine addiction treatment services. And some places received permission to go further — for example, delivering methadone to patients rather than requiring they pick it up in person.

Providers say the changes really helped. Many of them had to go virtual almost overnight, as the threat of the coronavirus became clear to much of the country. But they had feared they wouldn’t be able to prescribe necessary medications at all, given the arduous rules on such drugs, possibly putting their patients at risk of relapse, overdose, and death.

Things haven’t gone perfectly, but the relaxed rules, providers and experts say, have helped avoid the worst of it.

“It was incredibly challenging [for us], as it was for all providers,” Alexis Geier-Horan, vice president of government relations at the addiction treatment provider CleanSlate, told me. “Thankfully, we really didn’t lose many patients. … That was only possible because of what the federal government did in response to public health emergencies.”

Addiction treatment has long been difficult to access in the US. According to federal data, only 1 in 10 people with a drug use disorder get specialty treatment. Multiple problems play into that treatment gap, including a lack of local providers, high costs, and poor insurance coverage. Much of the treatment provided lacks evidence, or even rejects evidence-based modalities, and can even be downright fraudulent — leaving potential patients resistant to getting care in a broken system.

That’s why, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, activists and providers were calling for making it easier to prescribe addiction medications. Pandemic or not, some patients have always struggled with transportation, or lived in underserved areas that would require a lengthy trip to get treatment. For these patients, getting prescriptions by telemedicine or phone, or simply having to go to a clinic less often for medication, would help.

On the flip side, the patients who now rely on these services to get treatment, regardless of the pandemic, could stand to lose if the relaxed regulations expire. That’s what those in the field are now worried about: If those patients lose their means to treatment, they might give up on it altogether.

That would come at a particularly calamitous time for the opioid epidemic. Even before the pandemic, drug overdose deaths were trending up. But with the pandemic and continuing spread of the potent opioid fentanyl, overdose deaths have skyrocketed this year: On April 2020 (the latest month of data), there were nearly 78,000 drug overdose deaths, based on preliminary federal data — a 13 percent increase from the same time last year, setting up 2020 to be the worst year for overdose deaths ever.

That’s not, advocates and experts say, a sign that the measures easing access to addiction treatment failed, but rather that the measures didn’t and couldn’t go far enough to address a rapidly worsening overdose crisis. While the measures likely helped ease some of the pain brought on by Covid-19, they couldn’t resolve all the hurdles to treatment in America. That’s a case for building on the relaxed rules, not taking them away when the pandemic subsides.

“The stakes are life and death,” Kelly Clark, president of the advocacy group Addiction Crisis Solutions, told me. “We know, absolutely, that people who are taking their maintenance medications like buprenorphine for opioid addiction have a decreased chance of dying prematurely because of their addiction compared to those who aren’t on medications. This is very clear.”

Providers now worry the lax rules could go away soon

Two of the three federally approved medications for opioid addiction, methadone and buprenorphine, are among the most regulated drugs in the country. Methadone is only administered at specialized clinics — requiring patients to go to a clinic as often as daily to get it, and only letting them earn the ability to take some doses home over time. Buprenorphine can be prescribed by a doctor and picked up at a pharmacy, like other medications, but it still requires the prescriber to go through a special certification, and starting a patient required an in-person medical evaluation.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic came, almost immediately making these requirements unfeasible for patients and providers who now had to get and do treatment virtually.

So federal agencies took advantage of the federal public health emergency declared to combat Covid-19 to ease the rules — making telemedicine, including video and audio calls, more feasible for buprenorphine, and easing rules for methadone take-home doses. Local and state agencies followed suit.

But the changes are only in effect until the public health emergency expires. That’s left advocates and providers worried, and they’re increasingly sounding the alarm — as early as possible — to get Congress or other officials to act. They’ve called on federal lawmakers to pass the TREATS Act, which would make many of the rule changes permanent, as soon as possible.

Speaking for [the American Society of Addiction Medicine], ASAM would love to see the TREATS Act passed with any kind of legislation that goes through during this lame-duck [period], so that we don’t have to face this other unknown coming into the year,” Clark, former president of ASAM and vice chair of the group’s Covid-19 task force, told me.

The typical argument for keeping the old rules comes down to fears of diversion: that the medications will be diverted to a black market for recreational uses. Buprenorphine and methadone are opioids, and, though they’re very effective for treating addiction, they can be misused. So loosening access to either too much, the argument goes, could lead to the drugs ending up in the wrong hands.

As the Drug Enforcement Administration put it, “Under normal circumstances, DEA would not consider the initiation of treatment with a controlled substance based on a mere phone call to be consistent with the framework of the [Controlled Substance Act] given that doing so creates a high risk of diversion.”

Providers take these concerns very seriously, and have adopted a range of practices, such as regular urine screenings, to make sure people are actually taking their medications and not relapsing. Many providers are concerned that loosening the rules too much, and simply doing treatment virtually, could make it harder to prevent diversion.

At the same time, some experts argue that concerns about diversion are overblown. For one, some research suggests that diversion is a result of people not being able to legally obtain buprenorphine or other treatment, forcing them to resort to illegal means of getting the medication. So the stricter regulations could be causing more diversion, not preventing it.

That indicates a balancing act is needed. If it turns out, in the pandemic, that expanding telemedicine for buprenorphine increases access without much more, if any, diversion, then maybe the right balance is more toward a laxer regime than the longstanding laws and rules suggest.

“These agencies are trying to balance the public safety side of making these changes with the public health side,” Geier-Horan, who previously worked on addiction treatment under the Obama administration, said. “From a CleanSlate perspective, the benefit of these things far outweighs those [diversion] concerns.”

Some researchers are working to find out if that’s the case, studying how virtual treatment has worked throughout the pandemic. A JAMA Psychiatry article noted there’s a dearth of research on the role of telemedicine in addiction treatment, including whether it improves access and can be done without significantly increasing diversion.

“That could be really helpful in getting people on board,” Allison Lin, lead author of the JAMA Psychiatry article and an addiction psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Michigan and the VA Center for Clinical Management Research, told me. “We do need more research to provide that data. We don’t have those kinds of answers just yet.”

Short of that, providers are sharing their own experiences, arguing that they’ve been able to maintain a level of care, and even gain some patients, throughout the pandemic despite the obvious disruptions Covid-19 has brought on. But they also worry that losing the new tools they have now could lead to the opposite result once the pandemic is over, fueling a drug overdose crisis that’s already getting worse.

Effective addiction treatment is inaccessible to many Americans

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has in some ways overshadowed it, America’s opioid epidemic is still in full force. It’s in fact gotten worse this year, based on the data we have. The widespread sense of isolation and despair that many people have felt this year, coupled with greater difficulty finding help for such problems as many places close down, has contributed to more drug overdose deaths. Paired with that, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has continued to supplant heroin in more of the illicit market — and in part because it’s so potent, it’s more likely to cause overdoses and deaths.

“While our attention has gone to Covid, and rightly so, our overdose deaths have skyrocketed,” Clark said. “We have to keep overdose deaths on the map.”

One of the key contributors to this crisis all along has been lack of access to evidence-based treatment. Good treatment remains very difficult to get in the US — it can cost tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket, and despite those high costs, it’s still frequently of bad to mediocre quality. One family I spoke to last year told me that they spent $200,000 on treatment before they found something that worked. That’s an extreme example, but it’s not rare, based on the thousands of responses to Vox’s survey about the issue, for people to spend an exorbitant amount on treatment and end up with little to nothing to show for it.

That’s not because evidence-based treatment doesn’t exist. For opioid addiction, the medications are truly proven to work well. Studies show buprenorphine and methadone reduce all-cause mortality among opioid addiction patients by half or more, and they do a far better job of keeping people in treatment than non-medication approaches. There are all sorts of other good treatment modalities for other kinds of addiction, including medications and paying people to stay in treatment (known as contingency management).

But these evidence-based approaches are dramatically underutilized. According to federal data, only 42 percent of the nearly 15,000 facilities tracked by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provide any type of medication for opioid addiction. This is largely driven by stigma — the faulty notion that medications replace one drug for another, even though the medications are proven to improve outcomes compared to continuing to use illicit drugs.

So there’s a dearth of providers for evidence-based treatment. When those providers are available, they might not be covered by insurance, and cost thousands out of pocket. If someone has gone to a treatment facility before and ended up with a bad experience due to shoddy, evidence-less care, they also might be skeptical that there’s good help out there at all. That all makes treatment less accessible, and people less receptive to it.

That’s why much of the work to combat the opioid epidemic, from legislation passed by Congress to state efforts to more localized approaches to lawsuits, has gone to expanding access to treatment: If truly effective treatment exists, then it’s just a matter of making sure it’s available to the public.

Along those lines, activists had pushed for more access to telemedicine for years. Of particular concern were underserved areas with few providers — like rural West Virginia, which has a massive overdose crisis and not enough addiction treatment providers to handle demand from patients. Telemedicine can make it easier for existing providers to serve other areas in the state, or even people in other states entirely.

It’s also about expanding the spectrum of care. Every person dealing with addiction is different. Some people are fine with being on medications; some people aren’t. Some will like treatment through Zoom or phone; some won’t. Some have a car; some have no reliable transportation. By offering a variety of options for what care is delivered and how, the hope is fewer people won’t get into treatment because there’s not an option for them.

“It’s not to say everybody should get telehealth, or everybody should get in-person [treatment],” Lin said. “It was just that, before, everybody was in person because that was the only option available.”

Covid-19 has made a lot of things worse, including the opioid crisis. A silver lining to all of this is it’s also given us a big, ongoing experiment to see if a telemedicine model can work for addiction care.

Some providers are now hoping that the eventual end of the pandemic isn’t the end of that experiment — given that it may be helping stave off what’s already the worst drug overdose crisis in American history.