While it’s normal for prominent business people to donate to both sides of the political aisle—so that whoever wins an election they can call in some favours—as the Republican Party lurches further to the right, some of the candidates being supported are deserving of a bit more scrutiny than usual.
For almost two years, Microsoft officials botched a key Windows defense, an unexplained lapse that left customers open to a malware infection technique that has been especially effective in recent months.
Microsoft officials have steadfastly asserted that Windows Update will automatically add new software drivers to a blocklist designed to thwart a well-known trick in the malware infection playbook. The malware technique—known as BYOVD, short for "bring your own vulnerable driver"—makes it easy for an attacker with administrative control to bypass Windows kernel protections. Rather than writing an exploit from scratch, the attacker simply installs any one of dozens of third-party drivers with known vulnerabilities. Then the attacker exploits those vulnerabilities to gain instant access to some of the most fortified regions of Windows.
It turns out, however, that Windows was not properly downloading and applying updates to the driver blocklist, leaving users vulnerable to new BYOVD attacks.
As attacks surge, Microsoft countermeasures languish
Drivers typically allow computers to work with printers, cameras, or other peripheral devices—or to do other things such as provide analytics about the functioning of computer hardware. For many drivers to work, they need a direct pipeline into the kernel, the core of an operating system where the most sensitive code resides. For this reason, Microsoft heavily fortifies the kernel and requires all drivers to be digitally signed with a certificate that verifies they have been inspected and come from a trusted source.
Even then, however, legitimate drivers sometimes contain memory corruption vulnerabilities or other serious flaws that, when exploited, allow hackers to funnel their malicious code directly into the kernel. Even after a developer patches the vulnerability, the old, buggy drivers remain excellent candidates for BYOVD attacks because they’re already signed. By adding this kind of driver to the execution flow of a malware attack, hackers can save weeks of development and testing time.
Over the past couple of years, we have seen a rash of new BYOVD attacks. One such attack late last year was carried out by the North Korean government-backed Lazarus group. It used a decommissioned Dell driver with a high-severity vulnerability to target an employee of an aerospace company in the Netherlands and a political journalist in Belgium.
In a separate BYOVD attack a few months ago, cybercriminals installed the BlackByte ransomware by installing and then exploiting a buggy driver for Micro-Star’s MSI AfterBurner 18.104.22.16858, a widely used graphics card overclocking utility.
Microsoft is acutely aware of the BYOVD threat and has been working on defenses to stop these attacks, mainly by creating mechanisms to stop Windows from loading signed-but-vulnerable drivers. The most common mechanism for driver blocking uses a combination of what's called memory integrity and HVCI, short for Hypervisor-Protected Code Integrity. A separate mechanism for preventing bad drivers from being written to disk is known as ASR, or Attack Surface Reduction.
Unfortunately, neither approach seems to have worked as well as intended.
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Microsoft has touted these protections since at least March 2020, when the company published this post promoting "Secured Core" PCs, which have HVCI enabled right out of the box. Microsoft presented Secured Core PCs (and HVCI in general) as a panacea for in-the-wild BYOVD attacks, stemming either from buggy drivers or "wormhole" drivers (those which are vulnerable by design). The company wrote:
In our research, we identified over 50 vendors that have published many such wormhole drivers. We actively work with these vendors and determine an action plan to remediate these drivers. In order to further help customers identify these drivers and take necessary measures, we built an automated way in which we can block vulnerable drivers and that is updated through Windows update. Customers can also manage their own blocklist as outlined in the sections below. [emphasis added]
The post went on to say that "Microsoft threat research teams continuously monitor the threat ecosystem and update the list of drivers that [are] in the Microsoft-supplied blocklist. This blocklist is pushed down to devices via Windows update."
A few months later, Microsoft Senior VP of Enterprise and OS Security David Weston tweeted that by turning on these protections, Windows users were safe from an ongoing BYOVD attack that had recently made the rounds.
“Security vendors are going to tell you [that you] need to buy their stuff, but Windows has everything you need to block it,” Weston wrote.
PSA @surface book 3 and all new Surface devices have HVCI and VBS on by DEFAULT which enforces a driver block policy that blocks RWET and other bad drivers. Security vendors are going to tell you need to buy their stuff, but Windows has everything you need to block it. https://t.co/FBoApbNA3F
Multiple Microsoft posts have made the same claim about automatic updating ever since. This one from last December said that signed drivers reported to be vulnerable are blocked by default through Microsoft’s automated Windows Update mechanism when Windows 10 has HVCI enabled.
But as I was reporting on the North Korean attacks mentioned above, I wanted to make sure this heavily promoted driver-blocking feature was working as advertised on my Windows 10 machine. Yes, I had memory integrity turned on in Windows Security > Device security > Core isolation, but I saw no evidence that a list of banned drivers was periodically updated.
So I reached out to Microsoft and asked if someone would provide me with background about how the protection worked. The response: Microsoft had “nothing to share” with me.
I then turned to Peter Kálnai, a researcher at security firm ESET who has had plenty to share about BYOVD attacks. I asked him for help testing this driver blocklist feature. Very quickly, we found it lacking. When Kálnai enabled HVCI on a Windows 10 Enterprise system in his lab, for instance, the machine loaded the vulnerable Dell driver that had recently been exploited by Lazarus.
Around the same time, researchers, including Will Dormann, a senior vulnerability analyst at security firm ANALYGENCE, had been tweeting for weeks that various drivers known to be actively used in BYOVD attacks were not being blocked the way Microsoft advertised.
Upon further investigation, Dormann discovered that this vulnerable WinRing0 driver wasn’t present in the Microsoft-recommended driver block rules. In the same thread, he went on to show that, despite Microsoft's claims that ASR is capable of blocking vulnerable drivers from being written to disk, he could find no evidence that this feature worked at all. Microsoft has yet to address this criticism or to provide Dormann with guidance.
Dormann went on to discover that the driver blocklist for HVCI-enabled Windows 10 machines hadn't been updated since 2019, and the initial blocklist for Server 2019 only included two drivers.
As scrutiny of this situation increased, a Microsoft project manager finally admitted that something had gone wrong with the update process for the driver blocklist. The manager tweeted that Microsoft was “fixing the issues with our servicing process which has prevented devices from receiving updates to the policy.”
Thanks for all the feedback. We have updated the online docs and added a download with instructions to apply the binary version directly. We're also fixing the issues with our servicing process which has prevented devices from receiving updates to the policy.
What the program manager was saying boiled down to this: If you thought HVCI was protecting you from recent BYOVD attacks, you were probably wrong. Windows 10 hadn't updated the list in almost three years.
Coinciding with the project manager’s tweet, Microsoft released a tool that allowed Windows 10 users to deploy the blocklist updates that had been held back for three years. (Not that Microsoft has done much to promote the tool; the company quietly updated instructions here.) But this is a one-time update process; it is not yet clear if Microsoft can or will push automatic updates to the driver blocklist through Windows Update.
While Microsoft’s response to my questions about driver blocklist updating was indifference, company employees have been actively dismissive to admins and researchers who began asking their own questions about the topic. Recently, for instance, when Dormann pointed out a demonstrably false claim in an August tweet from Weston—that ASR ensured that updated driver blocking happened automatically—Weston did not apologize or even admit the problems. Rather than confirming an update lapse that spanned more than two years, Weston bristled, saying only that updates “are in the servicing pipeline” and that Microsoft has already “provided a tool to do it right now."
The closest Microsoft has come to an admission of failure is a comment from a company representative, saying, “The vulnerable driver list is regularly updated, however we received feedback there has been a gap in synchronization across OS versions. We have corrected this and it will be serviced in upcoming and future Windows Updates. The documentation page will be updated as new updates are released.”
The representative didn’t say how long the gap lasted or what upcoming and future Windows updates would fully fix the problem.
The Microsoft instructions linked above work, but they’re written for admins who may need to test the blocklist before actually enforcing it. This flexibility is great for people responsible for ensuring they don't cripple big fleets of devices; for average users, it creates unnecessary complexity that may cause them to give up.
To address this, Dormann has created and published a script that normal (ie, non-enterprise) users will likely find easier to use than Microsoft’s convoluted method. Dormann’s script runs in PowerShell, the command-line shell that's built into Windows. As with any PowerShell script you find on the Internet, be mindful of running this on any computer you care about. It worked for us, but we can't vouch for its effectiveness on every system.
After opening PowerShell with administrator rights, copy the entire contents of Dormann’s script, paste it into the PowerShell window using the ctrl-V keys on your keyboard, and hit enter. Next, type ApplyWDACPolicy -auto -enforce and hit enter.
When I did that, my ThinkPad was no longer able to load a long list of known buggy drivers, including many that have been used for years in recent BYOVD attacks.
Or at least, that was my hope. Given Microsoft’s recent inattention to detail and lack of transparency, I wanted to make sure.
To confirm that driver blocking was working as expected, I checked to see if my machine would load mhyprot3.sys, a successor to the Genshin Impact anti-cheat driver. This driver, as mentioned earlier, was recently used by a ransomware threat group during targeted attacks that went on to exploit a code-execution vulnerability in the driver to disable antivirus scanning.
Prior to running Dormann's PowerShell script, my ThinkPad installed mhyprot3.sys just fine.
After I ran the script, the driver was blocked. This can be confirmed by responses in both the Windows command window and the Windows event viewer.
These images are a striking illustration of the difference between the way that Microsoft claimed Windows driver blocking worked and the way it has actually worked for the past two years. It seems clear that at least some recent malware campaigns using BYOVD would have been less successful had driver blocklist updating lived up to Microsoft’s promises.
Indeed, research from ESET's Kálnai found that in the last year, drivers that have been added to Microsoft's driver blocklist were actually used in in-the-wild BYOVD attacks. These include:
DBUtil_2_3.sys by Dell
ene.sys by ENE Technology
HW.sys by Marvin Test Solutions, Inc.
physmem.sys by Hilscher Gesellschaft für Systemautomation mbH
rtcore64.sys by Micro-Star
mhyprot2.sys by miHoYo Co
asWarPot.sys by Avas
nvflash.sys by NVIDIA
For now, people should make sure they have driver blocking turned on with the latest blocklist installed using either Microsoft's instructions or Dormann's PowerShell script. People should also await further updates from Microsoft about if and when driver blocklists will automatically be updated through the Windows Update mechanism.
In the longer term, Microsoft's leadership will hopefully recognize the ways that its company culture is becoming increasingly insular and defensive. Had it not been for Dormann and other researchers, like Kevin Beaumont and Brian in Pittsburgh, reporting the problems they were having with driver blocklist updates, Microsoft still might not understand what had gone wrong.
In many cases, these critics know Microsoft products better than executives like Weston. Instead of portraying the critics as uninformed complainers, Microsoft should publicly embrace them—and provide more actionable guidance they and others can use to make the Internet safer.
Let’s start with a proposition that nearly all Democrats can enthusiastically rally around: The party’s messaging is awful. It’s piss-poor.
If you live in a deep-blue ZIP code, or just travel in circles with your fellow Democrats, you’re lucky if you can get through a wedding reception, a kindergarten graduation, a bar mitzvah—a funeral!—without overhearing a conversation, or participating in one, in which this frustration boils over. Why don’t they say this? What about this phrase? How about a 30-second spot that says this!
Everyone thinks they could do it better. The party is lousy with these Citizen Consultant types who believe the Democrats’ highly paid strategists don’t craft the right words. They don’t punch hard enough. They don’t punch low enough. They have no idea how to convey to normal Americans that what the party is peddling is good for them.
And perhaps most of all: They just don’t know how best to make villains out of Republicans.
“Why didn’t every voter in America repeatedly see those pictures of the Trump sons standing over the dead leopards and other exotic animals they hunt in Africa! How about the one of a smirking Don Jr. with a knife in one hand and a severed elephant tail in the other? People would hate that!”
That’s me, quoting myself, as I spouted off in my own deep-blue ZIP code—more than once, I’m sure.
“You really think that would work?” Jefrey Pollock, president of the Global Strategy Group, said when I shared this idea with him. “Why would anyone care?”
They would care because it shows how essentially cruel, or even sadistic, the Trumps are. It’s the kind of thing that would stick with people, burrow into their brains; they’d talk about it with neighbors. Or so I think. But I believe Pollock was trying to tell me that it’s harder than it looks.
There’s an election coming up, if you haven’t heard, and though matters have improved somewhat, the odds are still that it won’t go well for Democrats. While they stand a good chance of keeping control of the Senate, holding their slim majority in the House seems unlikely. The current situation may well be beyond the scope of what even the best messaging can ameliorate, unless anger over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade makes all the difference. As Neil Oxman, a longtime political consultant in Pennsylvania, told me, “The message when you’re in charge is to solve the problems. Get the oil companies to stop gouging, call up the National Guard to take on supply-chain problems at the docks. Do whatever it takes.”
But there will be a presidential election in 2024, midterms two years later, another presidential in 2028, and on and on. Gas prices will cycle down, and baby formula will reappear on shelves. It should become possible again to fly without a nightmare of missed connections and canceled flights. Covid may even abate.
What will be the Democratic pitch going forward? Who’s going to come up with something better than Build Back Better?
Conservatives have played an effective long game—on abortion, notably, with the phrase “right to life” being the most brilliant political branding of our time; on “smaller government” and deregulation; on pushing tax “relief” rather than tax cuts; on owning words like values, faith, and freedom.
Even when they do not win elections, and when their actual positions are unpopular, they set the tone of political discourse and keep Democrats back on their heels. To give one example, conservatives have just about bludgeoned the word “liberal” right out of existence.
Yes, Democrats are the perennial “party of the future,” the overwhelming choice of younger voters. But what is the long-term approach other than waiting for a bunch of old white people—y’know, the types who most reliably vote in midterm elections and who cast the ballots that determine who controls the statehouses—to die out?
In taking on this story, I set out to explore a series of questions. The first ones were: Are Democrats really as bad at this as we think they are, and if so, why?
If you view messaging as a form of combat, with each side using words and images as weapons of persuasion, Republicans are undeniably superior. To be fair, they start out with substantial advantages—one of the big ones being that they are utterly shameless. “We have lawyers go through things to make sure what we’re saying is defensible,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Anna Greenberg. “They have no such compunctions. They just put fucking lies on television.”
That, unfortunately, is a given. But Republicans in almost all cases are constructing a larger story—that Democrats want to exert control over freedom-loving Americans. They’re coming for the guns. Throwing the border wide open so undocumented immigrants can vote. Indoctrinating children and making them feel bad about their heritage.
Democrats were led for eight years by one of the most gifted orators in the nation’s history. He was a success. On his last day in office, Barack Obama registered a 58 percent approval rating. But it is hard to define a legacy. In looking back, the Obama years feel like a Broadway show with a few stirring musical numbers and no book. What, other than the man himself and the story of his remarkable and unlikely journey to the White House, bound them together?
Much of it was not his fault. Obama was blocked from Day One by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans whose stated and unpatriotic goal was to make him fail. He was hectored by conservative figures, most notably Donald Trump, to produce his “long-form” birth certificate (did anyone ever even hear of that term, until they started yelling about it?) through nearly his entire first term.
In politics, it is not enough just to try to knock down the other side’s lies and distractions. If you’re not careful, you can make it worse. “Truth,” said Anat Shenker-Osorio, a Bay Area–based strategist for progressive candidates and organizations, “has very little impact on persuasion.”
Republican Glenn Youngkin stormed to victory in last November’s race for governor in Virginia by railing against the teaching of critical race theory in the commonwealth’s schools. It was pure fiction. Critical race theory—which holds that systemic racism is embedded in U.S. institutions and laws—is a product of academia and is taught in some colleges and universities, not in K-12 public schools. That didn’t stop Youngkin from signing an executive order, on his first day in office, ordering that all evidence of critical race theory be rooted out of the state’s public schools.
Youngkin’s opponent, Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton-era retread and former Virginia governor, not only failed to effectively deflect Youngkin’s nonsense but compounded it by responding: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” There was nothing wrong with the sentiment—that educators, not parents, should write curricula. But it played right into Youngkin’s trope that schoolchildren were being brainwashed behind closed doors.
As an issue, critical race theory is as real as the war on Christmas. It is as real as “ballot harvesting,” a lie that attaches to a lie—the fiction that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. But Republicans are effectively using the myth of ballot harvesting (sounds awful, right?) as a pretext for passing laws in the states to restrict voting access.
There is a genius to all of these things. The phony issues stand in for an absence of any policy initiatives. Republicans are so unapologetically out of ideas that the party did not even have a platform in 2020.
Former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, no matter what you think of its merits, represented a sincere and thought-through effort to tackle a set of problems. Bush and his education secretary, Margaret Spellings, stood up a version of it in Texas when he was governor. It is difficult to think of any substantial Republican ideas—other than tax cuts and deregulation—in the two decades since No Child Left Behind was enacted by Congress in 2001.
“The Republicans were a party of ideas through the ’70s, ’80s, and even the ’90s,” said Melissa Deckman, a political scientist and the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington. “More recently, the Republican agenda in Congress has been only about conservative judges, cutting taxes, and maybe building the wall.”
Democrats brought Social Security to Americans. Medicare. Workplace safety. Republicans opposed it all back in the day and would again if it were just now coming up for a vote. They’d oppose mandatory seat belt–wearing, which dates to the Reagan years and his secretary of transportation, Elizabeth Dole, as an infringement on personal freedoms.
Liberated from the difficult task of having to defend policies and ideas, Republicans play exclusively on offense. It is another of their advantages. They attack—usually on the same familiar grounds—and the Democrats do a poor job of defending.
Consider the Affordable Care Act, instantly recast by Republicans as Obamacare. It is broadly popular now. Many of its discrete aspects—especially the provision that prevents insurers from denying coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions—were popular from the beginning. But the furious opposition to it prevented Democrats from passing a better and more comprehensive health plan, stopped the party’s electoral momentum, and crimped its legislative ambitions for nearly the entirety of Obama’s two terms.
There were echoes of the opposition to the ACA in GOP hostility to President Biden’s most ambitious plans. Republican figures opposed the totality but not the particulars that benefited their voters.
Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican from Fort Worth, voted against Biden’s big infrastructure bill, which Congress enacted last year, calling it a “socialist plan full of crushing taxes and radical spending.” Then, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that $403 million from that pot of money would go to a flood control project in her district, she hailed it as “a great day for Fort Worth.” That is a particular kind of hypocrisy, to celebrate and even claim credit for what you opposed, and Granger was not the only Republican to do so.
Early in Obama’s first term, the Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz helped craft opposition to the ACA. “I did, and I do disagree with Obamacare,” he told me. “We called it a government takeover. I can’t take credit for that. A woman at a focus group in St. Louis said to me, ‘This feels like a government takeover.’ I said how many of the rest of you feel like that, and everyone started nodding.”
But the vast majority of Americans kept their employer-provided health care and their own doctors, so Obamacare was, in fact, nothing like a government takeover. Nor did it come with “death panels,” the government functionaries who supposedly were going to decide who would get care and who was so old or sick they would be left to die. (The fantasy of “death panels” sprang from the vivid imagination of Sarah Palin, who first posted about them on her Facebook page.)
Blowback to the ACA helped birth the Tea Party movement and cost Democrats a Senate seat in Massachusetts, of all places, when Republican Scott Brown won a special election in January 2010 to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat. The following November, Democrats lost six more Senate seats, and Republicans took control of the House with a gain of 63 seats and got a net gain of six governorships.
The losses in Congress were by no means only about the health plan. But Republicans effectively broadened the scope of their opposition to it in order to argue that Democrats were the party of overreach.
The former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey was one of the godfathers of the Tea Party movement, and I happened to be traveling with him in 2009 as he railed against the Democrats’ health care plan. I was struck by the simplicity of his language, which he used to land a kind of one-two punch.
His point was that the Democratic plan was not just wrong in its specific provisions—it was an assault on the American way of life. During a rally at a Harley-Davidson dealership in North Carolina, he said that Democrats in Washington had “an aggressive dislike for our heritage” and a disregard for the nation’s founding documents.
“What should be your guide?” asked Armey, who has a Ph.D. in economics. “The Constitution. This ain’t no thinkin’ thing.”
Republicans pay careful attention to words, the simpler the better, as Armey’s homespun comment–ain’t no thinkin’ thing—would indicate. When they settle on ones that work, they just keep rolling them off the conveyor belt and sending them throughout the land.
Democrats, and particularly the progressive wing of the party, are sloppy with language. You get the impression they use words that they like, rather than what might best connect on the receiving end, which really ought to be the point.
Take one seemingly small example: the word Latinx. It is well-intended, gender-neutral, and inclusive. President Biden has used it. But it’s confusing, even (or especially) to Latinos. It is a term hatched in academia and adopted by the left that doesn’t play on the street. Politically, it’s a net minus. “The first time I heard that word, in the mid-2000s, I was teaching at a university in New York. I wasn’t quite sure I understood and laughed, thinking it was a joke,” the author and cultural critic Luisita López Torregrosa wrote in 2021.
“My first thought was that it wasn’t Spanish—but that it was pretentious. Many Latinos like myself see the ‘X’ as odd and off-putting because it doesn’t follow the traditional structure of Spanish, making it awkward and difficult to pronounce because in Spanish few words end with two consonants.”
A Democratic firm that focuses on Latino outreach, Bendixen & Amandi International, asked 800 voters of Latin American descent last year about the term Latinx. Two percent preferred it, compared to 40 percent who said it bothered or offended them.
In explaining why his organization would not use it, Domingo García, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said, “It’s sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings. LULAC always rep Jose and Maria on Main Street in the barrio, and we need to make sure we talk to them the way we talk to each other.”
Democrats have been losing ground with Hispanic voters for a range of reasons. The biggest one is certainly not the use of Latinx. But it is, however, a symptom of a broader problem—an inability to connect at gut level. When voters say they feel Democrats are talking over their heads, they’re not wrong.
I would make the same argument against “food insecurity,” another term that feels like it was formulated in a university laboratory. (It actually comes out of the United Nations.) I understand—it takes into account food safety and nutritional value—but if you were trying to move someone to action, is it really better than hunger?
“We’re wonks on the left,” said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, which advocates to protect and strengthen Social Security. “The messaging is honest, straightforward, and too nerdy.”
Luntz, the Republican consultant, is a ubiquitous television presence and longtime Republican wordsmith. He pays close attention to the language employed by both sides, and if he hears something good used by his opponents, he sets out to puncture it. To counter “global warming”—which suggests the planet is in danger of baking—Luntz advised his clients to use the less–alarming-sounding “climate change.” (His clients included the Republican Party and President George W. Bush; he told me that he now regrets this and has since consulted for the Environmental Defense Fund.)
Luntz is not a Trump fan but believes the former president’s resurrection of the slogan “America First” was brilliant. “It’s just two words,” he pointed out, and they resonate. When I countered that America First is a phrase associated with the aviator Charles Lindbergh, an antisemite who wanted the United States to stay out of World War II and negotiate with Hitler, Luntz threw back his head and laughed. “You’re a freak,” he said. “Do you know how many Americans know that? One percent? A half-percent?”
I got the point. Republicans don’t assume voters have much historical literacy. They don’t overestimate their intelligence. But Democrats do.
“Sell the brownie, not the recipe,” is the top-line advice that Shenker-Osorio gives to her clients. She has consulted for various candidates and organizations, both overseas and in the United States, including the Senate Democratic Caucus. She tries to coax progressives out of their long-windedness—their instinct to aim messages at the head rather than the heart—and their tragic inability to get to the point.
“I want them to say fewer things and say them more often,” she said. “But Democrats get bored with that. They’re not good at it. I say this with so much sadness, but Elizabeth Warren spent an entire campaign selling the recipe rather than the brownie. I tell people: Don’t take your policy out in public. It’s not seemly. Your policy is not your message. The message is the outcome of your policy. For example, ‘We’re going to give you family leave so you’re going to be there the first time your baby smiles. We’ll raise the minimum wage so you can put food on your table, and you’ll be home to eat dinner with your family.’”
I heard the same frustrations from others involved in Democratic messaging. They get it. But it’s hard to get others to understand and follow along.
“D.C. Democrats are always complaining about the messaging, or they’re sure they’ve got the right message,” Lawson said. “But the problem is we’ve got 300 different messengers. You can even see multiple different messages coming out on the Sunday shows.”
Said Paul Maslin, a Democratic consultant whose career goes back to the 1976 Carter campaign: “The New Deal was something tangible. The Great Society was the same thing. These were coherent things that connected ideals to legislation. What we have now is a mishmash.”
The current Republican agenda is a hodgepodge of looniness and hate. You want to imagine all of it would fail just of its own accord, but the depressing truth is that there’s a market for it.
The most mean-spirited positions do not emanate from a far pole of the conservative movement. They swim in the mainstream—for instance, the recently enacted platform of the Republican Party in Texas, the nation’s second-largest state, which defines homosexuality as “abnormal” behavior.
Or the Republican orthodoxy that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Or, for that matter, the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court’s takedown of Roe v. Wade, written by Justice Samuel Alito, which quotes as an authority on the subject of reproductive rights seventeenth-century English jurist Matthew Hale—who held that men could not be prosecuted for raping their wives—as well as a thirteenth-century cleric and jurist by the name of Henry de Bracton.
Add to that the concurring opinion of Clarence Thomas, who wrote that the court “should reconsider” other decisions—including the decriminalization of same-sex relationships; the right to gay marriage; and 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut, which held that married couples have a right to contraception.
The two major parties “do not operate as simple mirror images,” the political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins observe in their 2016 book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats. They write that even as Democrats have moved to the left on certain social issues, the party’s governing style can be described as “technocratic incrementalism over one guided by a comprehensive value system.” Democratic voters largely expect their elected officials to compromise—both among themselves, and, where possible, with the opposing party.
Republicans, by contrast, view politics as “ideological conflict” and demand that their elected officials adhere to “doctrinal purity.” They “interpret electoral defeat as a consequence of insufficient, rather than excessive, ideological purity.”
The tone of this very smart book is mild, as you’d expect from two academics. I would take it further than they do: One of our political parties operates within the realm of reason and sanity. The other has crossed over into a world of dark and dangerous madness.
In 2016, a North Carolina man fired an AR-15 rifle inside a Washington pizza parlor, based on his belief that a Satanic child sex abuse ring involving Hillary Clinton and other Democrats was operating out of its basement. This was a fantasy spun out of the weirder corners of right-wing philosophy, and the attack, which became known as Pizzagate, was the first time that many Americans heard the crackpot beliefs of the online community that would soon be calling itself QAnon.
Six years later, polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 25 percent of Republicans believe in QAnon’s three core concepts, which PRRI defined as: The government, media and financial sector are run by Satan-worshipping pedophiles; there is a “storm” coming soon that will sweep elites from power; the nation is so far off track that American patriots may have to resort to violence to save it.
There’s an abundance of additional evidence that the American fringe is now the GOP mainstream. About 70 percent of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Republican elected officials, including members of Congress, now push the belief that Democrats are involved in “grooming” children for pedophiles.
Democrats tend to be “diverse and eclectic,” said Geoffrey Layman, chairman of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame. “They don’t buy the party talking points hook, line, and sinker.”
Republicans lean toward “authoritarianism,” he continued. “They believe what they are told by their leaders, whether it’s Fox News or their political leaders. It’s no longer a Reagan-era vision of conservative government, God, and country. Trumpism has elements of that. But the base does not question when he quotes ‘Two Corinthians.’ They accepted the Trumpist takeover of the party in order to win.”
Professional Democrats are equally horrified by the content of the conservative messaging—and by the fact that it works. Far-right, Trumpist rhetoric energizes the Republican base, and in 2020 drove a massive turnout, countering Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts and nearly giving Trump a second term.
Democrats have won in the nationwide vote count seven of the last eight presidential elections. But Republican messaging is having an impact where it counts: in battleground—or newly battleground—states.
Pennsylvania is the best example. It looked safely Democratic, at least in presidential cycles, having voted for the party’s nominee six consecutive times between 1992 and 2012, in all cases by comfortable margins. But Trump narrowly carried the state in 2016 over Hillary Clinton—and Joe Biden won it back four years later in a contest that was nearly as close.
With a population that is older and whiter than the national average, Pennsylvania is full of voters who are especially vulnerable to Republican appeals. The same is true of Wisconsin and Michigan, two other states that have trended more Republican in the last decade. “They’re not selling anything or trying to do anything,” Layman said. “What unites them is MAGA-ism—the shared sense that America used to be a country that worked for us, and we need to get back to that greatness.”
The backward-looking appeals are nakedly racist—whether the subject is border security, government spending, or even China and Covid. “They basically only have one story to tell,” said Shenker-Osorio. “It’s about status threat and racial grievance.”
Some Democrats believe, or at least want to hope, that this is sort of a Republican last gasp. “Their fundamental argument is, basically, we want to stand in the way of a country that is surging past us,” Maslin said. “They’re a wounded animal fighting a last battle.” Maybe so. But their story is unifying for a big chunk of Americans, even if it is not a majority. It demonizes enemies, gives voice to the aggrieved, and sends an army of angry working-class voters to the polls.
It’s a common refrain now to say that U.S. politics are tribal, but what gets left out is that Democrats are not a good tribe and, in fact, are a long way from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “a close-knit community under a defined leader, chief, or ruling council.” Democrats let their members wander off in all manner of unproductive directions. They don’t go to war with winning as the sole value. They don’t banish their dissidents.
Steven Greene is a professor of political science at North Carolina State University with an expertise in public opinion and elections. When I told him the questions I was exploring, he responded by highlighting the divisions in the Dem tribe: “Are Democrats horrible at messaging? No. Liberal advocacy groups, who are not trying to win elections, are horrible at it. They’re the ones talking about ‘chest feeding,’ the ones arguing for Lia Thomas and other trans athletes to compete against women.” Establishment Democrats, he continued, “did not argue for defunding the police or use that phrase. But the left and its organized groups do. These are deeply unpopular opinions.” The party, he said, is currently engaged in “generational warfare. They’re eating themselves from the inside.”
In June, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow observed that Democrats are pushing some issues too far and too fast and paying a price. “‘TooFar’ is not a viral hashtag—yet,” Blow wrote, “but it is the prevailing ethos of the moment and the sentiment animating our politics and our culture, the sense that is propelling a massive backlash across the political spectrum.” (He pointed out that Republicans have their own too-far problems.) He predicted that Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney and a crusader for criminal justice reform, might lose his office in a recall election out of voters’ sense of too-farism—which he did.
Two weeks after Blow’s column, his colleague at the Times, Jamelle Bouie, took the opposite position, attacking the party’s “sanguine complacency.” Where Blow saw too little caution, Bouie wrote that Democratic elders, many of them in their seventies and eighties, were exercising too much of it. “What’s missing from party leaders, an absence that is endlessly frustrating to younger liberals, is any sense of urgency and crisis—any sense that our system is on the brink,” he wrote.
Bouie is right, too. But the two positions are hard to square. Many more moderate Democrats look at the current state of affairs—mass shootings, polar ice caps melting, threats to democracy itself—with the same alarm that the party’s progressive wing does. But their impatience is tempered by the reality of the party’s precarious hold on power, currently a slim majority in the House and a one-vote edge in the Senate. (That margin comes with the necessity of a tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris and depends on Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona aligning with the Democratic tribe.)
A sense of patience and optimism—the feeling that if you just wait it out and keep working, life will get better—was a hallmark of the post–World War II generation of New Deal liberals. They emerged from a Depression and a triumphant battle with Nazism into a degree of comfort and wealth, and many passed their tomorrow-will-be-a-brighter-day outlook on to their boomer children.
But to this generation of younger Democrats, those feelings seem radically out of date. Progressive Democrats are pushing for measures to address a climate crisis they see as urgent. “But then you have the moderates in the party who say we don’t want to talk about the Green New Deal,” Maslin said. “Their feeling is: We’re on the front lines and it’s going to get us beat. As Democrats, we’re in a box. We defend the system, defend government, and say we can make it work. The Republicans don’t have that burden. Did anyone really believe Trump was going to build the wall?”
A more cautious approach risks alienating younger voters, always the least reliable slice of the electorate. They turned out for Obama, and young Democrats, and especially young women, have been eager volunteers in recent elections. But a Washington Post story in July indicated that enthusiasm for Democrats among the youngest voters was lagging. “If there isn’t something substantive done on the issues they care about, there is a real danger that young voters will not vote or volunteer on campaigns to the same degree as they did in 2020,” David McLennan, a political science professor and polling director at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, told the Post. “They are very unhappy with the ability of Democrats to get stuff done.” (In late August, Biden did announce some student debt relief.)
Maslin told me his nightmare scenario. “What I worry about,” he said, “is if the younger third, primarily millennials, throws up their hands and says this isn’t fucking worth it. If that happens, God help us.”
Democrats have been left with a narrow path to victory, both in assembling majorities in Congress and winning the presidency. The formula requires huge margins in the cities and close-in suburbs and a continued hold on female voters, Black voters, and college-educated whites. There was some slippage of Black support in 2020 and, more alarmingly, a bigger drop-off in the party’s winning margins with Hispanics. Most of the rest of the electorate—noncollege-educated whites, churchgoing white Christians, just about everyone in that big swath of red across the nation’s midsection—is currently unreachable. They’re the other tribe.
This leads to the perennial Democratic lament that working-class and poor voters in the Rust Belt—in the hollows of West Virginia, in hamlets in Arkansas—are voting against their economic self-interests. This is such a strongly held belief that it could almost be part of their party platforms.
Stop it already. It’s like the classic definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Democrats will not win over hearts in the dug-in Republican base by, say, improving dental care options in the ACA. The likelihood is that Republicans in Washington would vote against it and then claim credit in their districts when it passes.
There’s a raft of political science research that voters, and maybe especially Republican voters, are led by emotion as much as rationality. They go with the team they feel is pulling for them. Is it really voting against their self-interest when they cast ballots to put people in office who speak their language and make them feel better?
The pursuit of happiness is right there in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence! It makes people happy to cast a vote that elevates their tribe. It’s not rational, of course, but the Democrats’ consistent miscalculation is to believe that people address the world as they do—which is to say, rationally. “When it’s said that people are voting against their self-interest, it’s a mistake to define self-interest in purely economic terms,” said Laurel Elder, a political science professor at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and the co-author, with Steven Greene, of The Politics of Parenthood. “They vote on emotion, on what gives meaning to their lives.”
Elder told me about panel data—repeated surveys of the same people over the course of time—that asked how they thought the economy was faring. “When Obama was president, the Republicans said the economy was not doing well,” Elder stated. “The very same people said it was doing great as soon as Trump came into office.”
What can Democrats do to unite their tribe and bring new members into the fold?
California Governor Gavin Newsom took the unusual step of running a TV advertisement this summer in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies pushed through what became known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—the measure that restricts what teachers can instruct about sexual orientation and gender identity. Florida is also a national leader in the dubious category of ripping controversial books from the shelves of school libraries. “Freedom is under attack in your state,” Newsom says in the ad. “I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight, or join us in California, where we believe in freedom.”
Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat and candidate for an open Senate seat, occupies a place on the ideological spectrum far to the right of the San Francisco–born Newsom. In a July appearance on Meet the Press, he addressed the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. “This is the largest governmental overreach in the private lives of citizens in my lifetime,” Ryan said. “This is big government coming into your doctor’s office, to your bedroom. It’s crazy. This is not freedom. America is a country built on freedom. Everybody’s free except for a woman when she’s pregnant? Holy cow, that’s a huge stretch.”
Note the repeated use, from both men, of a single word: freedom.
In August, voters in deep-red Kansas resoundingly defeated a referendum that would have changed the state’s constitution to say that there was no right to abortion in the state, by a margin of 59 to 41 percent. The name of the organization that formed to defend the reproductive rights of women in the state: Kansans for Constitutional Freedom.
Freedom is one of the big words that Republicans have owned. “Democrats don’t want to talk about religion, faith, and freedom,” Luntz told me. “That comes off the Republican tongue like butter. Democrats choke on it.”
I don’t think Luntz is necessarily correct about the value of the first two words. In an increasingly secular nation, invoking religion can cut both ways. As for faith—in what? The word has come to mean just one thing, religious faith, but many secular Americans would say they do have faith—in family, in science, in America’s future.
Freedom, though, is the winning word for Democrats. It is the beacon that brought immigrants pouring into this country. In its fullest form, it is what the descendants of enslaved Africans have fought for over the whole of the nation’s 246-year history. It’s the through line for the nation’s proudest accomplishments and purest ambitions.
The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe unmasked Republican hypocrisy over the word. Democrats have begun to reclaim it and should keep at it. And seize on every chance to attach it to their issues.
Freedom for women to have control over their own choices and bodies. Freedom to vote. Freedom to love who you want. Freedom to read what you want. Freedom to earn a living wage. Freedom to send your children off to school without fear they’ll be riddled with bullets from an AR-15. Freedom for your kids and grandkids to dwell on a livable planet.
The last Republican president, Donald Trump, buddied up with former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. An organization led by establishment Republicans, the Conservative Political Action Conference, held a conference earlier this year in Hungary, which is led by Viktor Orban, an anti-gay, anti-immigrant strongman systematically dismantling his nation’s democracy. CPAC then welcomed Orban to its conference in Texas, days after he decried “race-mixing” and argued that Hungary should be for pure Europeans—remarks so vile that a longtime ally resigned her position as an Orban adviser and decried the comments as “a pure Nazi speech worthy of Goebbels.”
This is the current direction of American conservatives. Toward authoritarianism, scapegoating of outsiders, and Soviet-style disinformation. The hard-right lurch of the conservative movement is a tragedy for the nation, an urgent threat to our democracy.
It’s also an opportunity that Democrats cannot squander. They need to wrap themselves in the flag and use the words that hammer home that they represent the true, patriotic American values.
Above all, they need to improve on the ham-handed messaging that continually threatens to turn victory into defeat. In August, after months of bickering and sputtering, Democrats passed a historic package of legislation that will address climate change, lower the costs that Americans pay for health care, raise taxes on the biggest corporations, and reduce the federal deficit. It was a monumental victory—so sweeping that some compared it to the achievements of the first two years of Johnson’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal.
Democrats, predictably, gave the Biden package a ponderous name: the Inflation Reduction Act. All that does is remind people that inflation is bad and invite ridicule if it is not brought under control quickly.
Go figure. It’s like they wanted to give those Citizen Consultants something fresh to complain about.
I would have called it, I don’t know, the Prosperity and Freedom Act. What exactly would that mean? Who cares?
Just keep talking about the ways the legislation helps ordinary Americans. Makes corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Keeps the planet livable for future generations.
Sell the brownie, not the recipe—and see how that works.
I drive a stick shift. It’s a pain, sometimes. Clutching and shifting in bumper-to-bumper traffic wears you out. My wife can’t drive my car, which limits our transit options. And when I’m at the wheel, I can’t hold a cold, delicious slushie in one hand, at least not safely. But despite the inconvenience, I love a manual transmission. I love the feeling that I am operating my car, not just driving it. That’s why I’ve driven stick shifts for the past 20 years.
That streak may soon be over. When it comes time to replace my current car, I probably won’t be able to get another like it. In 2000, more than 15 percent of new and used cars sold by the auto retailer CarMax came with stick shifts; by 2020, that figure had dropped to 2.4 percent. Among the hundreds of new car models for sale in the United States this year, only about 30 can be purchased with a manual transmission. Electric cars, which now account for more than 5 percent of car sales, don’t even have gearboxes. There are rumors that Mercedes-Benz plans to retire manuals entirely by the end of next year, all around the world, in a decision driven partly by electrification; Volkswagen is said to be dropping its own by 2030, and other brands are sure to follow. Stick shifts have long been a niche market in the U.S. Soon they’ll be extinct.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. For years, the stick’s decline has been publicly lamented. Car and Driver ran a “Save the Manuals” campaign in 2010, insisting that drivers who “learned to operate the entire car” would enjoy driving more and do it better. A #SaveTheManual hashtag followed. Shifting gears yourself isn’t just a source of pleasure, its advocates have said, or a way to hone your driving. A manual car is also less likely to be stolen if fewer people know how to drive it. It’s cheaper to buy (or at least it used to be), and it once had lower operation and maintenance costs. You can push-start a manual if the battery dies, so you’re less likely to get stuck somewhere; and you can use the stick more easily for engine braking, which can reduce wear and make descending hills easier and safer.
But the manual transmission’s chief appeal derives from the feeling it imparts to the driver: a sense, whether real or imagined, that he or she is in control. According to the business consultant turned motorcycle repairman turned best-selling author Matthew Crawford, attending to that sense is not just an affectation. Humans develop tools that assist in locomotion, such as domesticated horses and carriages and bicycles and cars—and then extend their awareness to those tools. The driver “becomes one” with the machine, as we say. In his 2020 book, Why We Drive, Crawford argues that a device becomes a prosthetic. The rider fuses with the horse. To move the tool is to move the self.
Crawford argues that this cognitive enhancement is possible only when you can interpret the components of the tool you’re operating. As a rider must sense the horse’s gait, so must a driver grok the engine’s torque. But modern automotive technology tends to inhibit that sensation. Power steering, electronic fuel injection, anti-lock braking systems, and, yes, automatic transmissions obstruct the “natural bonds between action and perception,” Crawford writes. They inhibit the operator’s ability to interpret the car’s state and capacities through a healthy feedback loop of action and information. To illustrate the point, he tells a story about test-driving a 400-horsepower Audi RS3 with all the options, including a paddle-shifting automatic transmission. It was powerful and capable, he says, but “I could not connect with the car.” That description is a common one among gearheads, a way of expressing that the human operator and the machine are out of sync.
The stick shift has become a proxy object for that loss. When manual transmissions were the norm, drivers had to touch and manipulate the shifter, in tandem with the clutch, constantly while operating a vehicle. Passengers saw this action taking place, and shifting gears became imbued with meaning. It represented the allure of the road, for all its good and ill, and stood in for the human control of a big, hot, dangerous machine screaming down the pavement. The manual transmission’s impending disappearance feels foreboding not (just) because shifting a car is fun and sensual, but also because the gearshift is—or was—a powerful cultural symbol of the human body working in unison with the engineered world.
Crawford admits that he might connect with the Audi if he put in enough hours at the wheel. But even knowing this, “the car left me cold,” he writes. In part, that’s because the coarse feedback that one gets while driving an all-electronic vehicle might be—or feel—too subtle for a brute human mind. Cars have, in a way, become too good. Human understanding slips off their surface, like ice off a hot hood.
The decoupling of humans from their driving machines will accelerate in years to come. If the automatic transmission made the stick shift a monument to lost control, the autonomous (self-driving) vehicle aims to do the same for steering wheels. At that point, the loss will be so complete that it may not feel so alienating. Any pretense that the automobile is a prosthetic will be eliminated, so car passengers can move on to other things. Like people on a train, they might settle into a book or take a nap or open up an Excel spreadsheet.
But fully autonomous cars might never be in widespread use, and even mostly autonomous cars could be a long way off. In the meantime, the automotive industry will take away drivers’ control in slow, lumbering steps, just as other industries have for other appliances, apparatuses, and services. You can now flush a toilet or operate a sink not with the force of your hands, but by means of sensors. Web and product searches yield the results some third party wants you to see, rather than the best matches to your requests. Maps, now digital, show points of interest in place of raw information; travelers let the apps that host those maps tell them where to go and how to get there. Customer-service agents follow scripts to solve your problems, your doctors follow automatic diagnostic templates, and the streaming platforms on your television calculate which shows you should watch next.
People rued the decline of the stick shift for years before the “Save the Manuals” campaign (and hashtag, and merch) spun up. But it may be no accident that the formal crusade arose just as computation overtook culture, steering human lives in the direction of technology companies’ and data aggregators’ needs. Around that time, all the apps and services just mentioned (and many more) became widespread.
The manual transmission, however marginal it has become during the smartphone age, remains a vestige of direct, mechanical control. When a driver changes speeds, their intention can be fruitfully realized in gratifying action, meshing literal gears. Even when your hand slips and the gears grind, the device still speaks in a way you can understand.
To lament the end of the manual transmission is to eulogize much more than shifting gears. When the manual dies, little about driving will fall away that hasn’t already been lost. But we’ll lose something bigger and more important: the comfort of knowing that there is one essential, everyday device still out there that you can actually feel operating. Even if you don’t own a stick, or if you don’t know how to drive one, its mere existence signals that a more embodied technology is possible—that it once was common, even—and that humans and machines really can commune. The stick shift is a form of hope, but it’s one we’ll soon have left behind.
"Crawford argues that this cognitive enhancement is possible only when you can interpret the components of the tool you’re operating. As a rider must sense the horse’s gait, so must a driver grok the engine’s torque. But modern automotive technology tends to inhibit that sensation."
I'm more open to this kind of talk than I would have been a few years ago.
Two years ago I started switching to a fixed-gear bicycle when the snow/ice sets in. Still use gears when the streets are clear, but fixed-gear when there's ice. I made the switch for safety reasons, because brakes don't work in the True Minnesota Cold. But an unexpected benefit of the fixed gear is that it is FUN. I really do feel like a human/bicycle cyborg when I get in the zone on a January ride over glare ice.
If gears and breaks can attenuate the cyborg experience of bike riding, I have no doubt that an automatic transmission can do the same for cars.
Recently, after a particularly invigorating car wash, I had a yen for a slushie. Maybe the warming weather inspired me. Perhaps the proud signage of the QuikTrip convenience store nearby activated an unconscious desire. No matter, a slushie I did get. At QuikTrip, it’s called a Freezoni, a curious, quasi-Italian aspiration that bears no relation to the dispensed product. To my palate, the slushie wasn’t good: too wet, not frozen enough, like it was already half-melted from being left too long in a vehicle cup holder.
This made me wonder: Why are slushies so different from one another? Then the thought solidified into a more existential brain freeze, as I realized that I could not even guess what might separate a Freezoni from a Slurpee, let alone an Icee from a slush. What the hell is a slushie, anyway? I had no idea, and barely any intuition.
Now I am enlightened. If you’ve ever been enthralled by one slushie and disappointed by another, it’s probably because you may be keying into qualities of which you’re not aware: carbonation, expansion, density, flavor intensity. But Big Slushie doesn’t really care whether you understand these differences, because Big Slushie doesn’t care about your needs. It exists to help convenience stores, food chains, and event providers maximize profit margins for impulse purchases, while framing those purchases to you, the slurper, as nostalgic memories of childhood delight. This is a difficult truth, and you may regret your loss of innocence in its pursuit.
“We don’t really talk about them as slushies.” That’s the first thing I learned from Tyler Parker, marketing manager for the Icee Company. Sure, normal people like you and me might talk about them, broadly, in reference to a class of icy, flavored bevvies drunk easily through a straw. (If you’re eating flavored frozen water with a spoon, or licking it from a cup, that’s an “ice.” A snow cone is an ice.) But the slushie is not, in fact, a superordinate category, not if you’re in the frozen-beverage business anyway.
Parker’s company, whose bright blue-and-red logos you’ve surely seen at fairs, movie theaters, and Target cafés, makes something called a “frozen carbonated beverage,” or FCB. Its Icee, he would proudly say, is the OG FCB. In 1958, a Kansas Dairy Queen operator named Omar Knedlik accidentally invented FCBs when his soda fountain malfunctioned. He had to serve bottles from the freezer instead, which foamed out cola when cracked open. People loved them, so Knedlik strapped an automobile air conditioner to a dispenser and turned the botch into a business. He wanted to call the product Scoldasice (as in “’s cold as ice,” not “scold-a-size,” which sounds like a 1980s fitness gimmick), but a friend wisely suggested “Icee” instead. With partners, Knedlik perfected the machine and began to sell it. Among his customers was the convenience-store chain 7-Eleven, which developed its own brand name for the FCB product, Slurpee. That’s right, a Slurpee is the same product as an Icee, but sold under a private-label trademark. Same for a product you may have seen called “Arctic Blast”—just another Icee-Slurpee, a sibling in the family.
The carbonation in Icees, Slurpees, and other FCBs provides an airy texture and a muted jolt, but also—when combined with yucca extract, a foaming agent—a surprisingly smooth texture and rich mouthfeel. Indeed, the fizz can be obscured so completely in the foam that you might not even have known that these drinks were carbonated. Bubbles also cause the dispensed product to expand, which is why your Slurpee or your Icee or your Arctic Blast inflates a bit after pouring, sometimes up and out of the domed lid to exasperate your parents.
Parker contrasts FCBs such as Icees with frozen uncarbonated beverages, or FUBs. Some of the frozen-beverage providers I spoke with articulate these names as initialisms (Eff You Bee), but Parker just says “fub,” as if to underscore its meager standing by means of phonics. When Parker does call a drink a slushie, he means to signal that it’s not the premium, carbonated kind of frozen drink, just a FUB. The Slush Puppie is a FUB; so is Dairy Queen’s Misty (formerly Mister Misty; kids these days got no respect), and the Sonic Drive-In fruity slush. A FUB can be good, of course, but it’s not really special. Anybody with some flavoring, some ice, and a blender can make a FUB. But an FCB, that requires its own equipment, supplies, and careful management.
To ensure the consistency of its branded FCBs, Parker’s team offers end-to-end service to its clients, including machines, flavor concentrates, maintenance of equipment, and marketing and sales support. But Icee’s grand designs on frozen-beverage domination span the slushiverse. In 2006, the company bought Slush Puppie, a classic FUB, then reformulated it with fruit juice and started selling the beverage in schools as “Juice 100.” When you order a frozen Coke at Burger King, that’s an Icee FCB. Same for those Mountain Dew slurp-alikes at Taco Bell. Big Slushie is real.
Or at least, that’s what the Icee Company would like me to believe. Isabel Atherton, the director of marketing at Sunny Sky Products, tells a different story. Her company makes concentrates for frozen drinks and sells them B2B. (Retailers choose which drink-making equipment to buy and how to service it.) Sunny Sky’s flavors are sometimes licensed from major food brands, such as Jarritos and Jolly Rancher, to allow for slushie lines with broad consumer recognition. Gas stations, for example, might try to sell you a Reese’s Freeze, thanks to Sunny Sky’s unholy interventions. Atherton says its flavors can be found at RaceTrac, Circle K, Wawa, QuikTrip, and many other convenience-store chains (“C-stores,” as insiders call them).
To maximize reach, Sunny Sky designs its products to work in either carbonated or uncarbonated machinery. “Most C-stores already have equipment,” Atherton told me. “What we try to do is to talk to manufacturers and test our products in their equipment.” In one machine, the crystals might be bigger, dulling the Jolly Rancher taste. Another one that produces smaller crystals might make the drink sweeter.
In other words, where Icee focuses on an end-to-end solution, Sunny Sky meets cost-conscious C-store operators where they are. A FUB machine is cheaper to buy and operate. An FCB machine is more expensive but self-contained, reducing operating complexity and increasing uptime. A drink’s “overrun”—the degree to which it expands in a carbonated-service machine—also has a direct impact on margins. More carbon dioxide means a fluffier beverage that uses less syrup and yields more profit. Icee and Slurpee may be powerful brand names, but Atherton dismisses their importance to frozen-beverage consumers. “‘Icee’ is like saying ‘Kleenex,’” she said. It’s a generic term—just another name for slushie.
She might have a point. I hadn’t even noticed QuikTrip’s Freezoni brand name until I started researching this story, even though it was emblazoned across the front of the machine that dispensed my drink. Ask a carload of unquenched souls, Do you want to get a Slurpee?, and they won’t necessarily assume you mean a stop at 7-Eleven. The buyer of a frozen drink won’t know the difference between an FCB and a FUB, and may have no expectations either way. “People don’t know the technical piece of it,” Parker admitted, and Atherton, along with every other frozen-beverage-industry insider I spoke with, agreed.
In place of knowledge about slushies, or even cogent preferences, all we have is our nostalgia. When I asked Parker to explain how his business works—what, exactly, does the Icee Company sell?—he kind of left orbit. “We exist to give people the best excuse to be a kid,” he said. “It’s a ‘kid in a cup’—an escape, an experience, something that’s going to give them a spark of joy.” I mean, it’s a slushie—err, FCB—but, you know, I get it. When I was a kid, my dad’s office sat across the street from a 7-Eleven. We’d walk over sometimes to get a Slurpee, and when I search my mind to justify why I even recall the memory, the essence of the product does glow at its center: light and expansive, full of possibility.
In the same way, a Slurpee from a Speedway gas station (owned by 7-Eleven) or an Icee at an AMC theater serves as the bookmark for a particular sense memory. But the backroom machinations of the slushie space also undermine our recollections, sloshing them together in a vat of cherry-red confusion. A Slush Puppie or DQ Misty is looser and more liquid than an Icee or a Slurpee, for example. A Sonic slush is icier, which explains why it’s so easy to slurp out all the color from that drink and end up with a cup of crushed, unflavored ice. Even Taco Bell’s FCBs, which Parker represented to be “his” (as in, a product of the Icee Company), aren’t as fluffy as Burger King’s. QuikTrip’s Freezoni—which launched my journey to the land of slush—expands much less, making the resulting drink heavier and wetter. In Canada, yucca extract is not approved for food use, so the Slurpee that you buy in Winnipeg or Saskatoon will be thinner than the one you get in Texas or Wisconsin.
These matters are somewhat secretive within the industry. One machine salesman I spoke with speculated that C-stores carefully test and tune the properties of their machines, such as syrup concentration and overrun, to produce the best margins on the lowest cost in their particular markets: “In Tennessee, they like it really light and fluffy,” he told me. When I pressed a QuikTrip representative about the lack of foam in my Freezoni, she stopped responding to my inquiries. Similar questions spooked the equipment sales guy, too; he was scared of running afoul of his marketing department, and didn’t want to be cited by name. At some convenience stores, he told me, the slushies are heavier and wetter by design. “They have determined their drink profile,” he said ominously, like a dark ice warlock.
Any consumer good can be mysterious. Who really knows what’s in a soda, or a hamburger, or a toothpaste? Branding covers over those questions, so arbitrary choice can masquerade as preference. But we tend to think it’s easy to distinguish between categories: A cola is not a sports drink; coffee isn’t tea. Slushies violate this expectation. Imagine going into a café and saying, “Give me a cup of the hot stuff,” and then accepting whatever they pour you as if it were the specific object of your desire. That’s what it is to buy a slushie.
Like Parker, Atherton described the purchase of a slushie as a feeling in itself, “like going out for ice cream.” According to John Pahic, who distributes the Taylor Company’s frozen-beverage machines for the Midwest Equipment Company, even regional “preferences,” such as the Tennessee foam, might have less to do with people’s palate than their life history—a slush ideology of sorts. You like what you know. And given the emotional, nostalgic nature of slushies, memory and habit rule.
When it comes to slushies, our brains are frozen. To us, they’re special treats that signify a special time—a hot summer day, a movie screening, a trip to the fair. Naturally the businesses that sell slushies see them differently, as high-margin impulse buys, tweaked to maximize the flow of capital. Your frozen drink is but a mere add-on to your entry ticket or taco-supreme order or tank of gas, and your (unconscious) frozen-beverage preferences have been exploited to produce compliant purchasing. The true customer of Big Slushie isn’t you, the slurper, but the C-stores who would tempt you to slurp.
We are all mere cogs in capitalism’s machine, I suppose, but it’s still a tragedy to see those gears turning out a frozen beverage. Perhaps I never should have started looking into Slurpees and Freezonis and the like. I’d long assumed that greater knowledge makes a pleasure more intense. But to know a slushie only numbs the soul.