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After Trump: how authoritarian voters will change American politics

The Republican party, for the past several months, has been struggling with an increasingly urgent disaster.

Its presidential primary has been hijacked by a bellowing, marmalade-toned demagogue who, despite his electrifying effect on a large swathe of Republican primary voters, has the worst favorability ratings ever measured for a national political candidate: Donald J. Trump.

Trump's abysmal national polling will probably ensure a crushing defeat for the GOP in November. But the voters who have thrilled to his candidacy aren't going away, and they will continue to shape the Republican party for years to come. They are the American authoritarians, a newly coalesced Republican constituency. And this primary has shown that they are now too powerful for the party to manage — and too significant for it to ignore.

Donald Trump's bewildering rise offers a hint of the ways in which authoritarianism could reshape American politics. The party's failed attempts to stop Trump have revealed that he is just a particularly telegenic manifestation of a divide within the party that is far deeper and more complex than anyone realized. It is a problem that, if left unsolved, could keep the Republican party out of the White House for a generation or more — and dramatically affect American politics.

The party has known for years that it needs to change, but it was wrong about the scope of its problems. In 2012, the Republican National Committee commissioned a "postmortem" of the party's failure in that year's election. Its findings were stark. If the party wanted to remain nationally viable, it had to improve its outreach to minorities and women.

"Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem," the report warned, "we will lose future elections."

Now, four years later, the rise of Donald Trump has revealed that the challenge the GOP is facing is far, far worse than it had feared. The party is so alienated from its voters that it has lost control of its own presidential primary. A broad swathe of those voters are drawn to positions that make the party unable to form a broader national coalition. Their hostility toward Latino immigration, for instance, repulses Latino voters — the largest minority group in America.

The Republican electorate is deeply divided, riven by a fault line that neither party elites nor outside observers saw until Trump exposed it. That fault line, little-noticed until now, is the emerging divide between Republican voters as we traditionally understand them and a class of voters that political scientists describe as "authoritarians."

Trump Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Trump supporters are typically portrayed in the media as a kind of intra-GOP, anti-establishment revolt, or perhaps just people in thrall to a charismatic television star — a Trump personality cult rather than a genuine political constituency. But authoritarians are more than that: a distinct and newly coalesced class of voters who share a particular set of motivations, preoccupations, and policy preferences.

Their numbers have been growing within the GOP for decades. Until Trump, no candidate has run a campaign so perfectly designed to cater to authoritarians' concerns. But his campaign has offered them the prospect of a new kind of politics, tailored directly to their concerns, and taught them that they can demand as much from other candidates in the future. And it has also given ambitious politicians a blueprint for successfully tapping into the authoritarian electorate.

That is a problem for the GOP, because success with authoritarians will likely mean failure elsewhere. Authoritarians are drawn to harsh, punitive policies like border walls and religious tests for immigration, and to strongmen leaders like Trump that alienate more moderate voters. And so if the party cannot find a way to overcome the authoritarians' influence, the White House will remain a lost cause for the GOP.

Their impact is likely to extend well beyond just the 2016 candidacy of Donald Trump, changing American politics in ways we are only beginning to feel.

The GOP is no longer a single unified party: It is two parties, barely allied

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Pennsylvania Ahead Of State Primary Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

The Republican party thought, in 2012, that its challenge would be to expand its coalition of voters enough to make the party nationally viable again. But it turns out to be facing an even worse and more urgent problem: the coalition it already has.

That coalition is dividing in two, split between Republicans as we typically know them — social conservatives who believe in small government, low taxes, and limited regulation — and a newly active block of voters known as authoritarians, defined not by demographics but by psychological profile. Authoritarians are hostile to outgroups and embrace aggressive, punitive policies toward them, including harsh anti-immigration laws and aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. But they aren't particularly interested in the traditional Republican economic agenda. Indeed, they're uninterested in tax cuts, protective of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and skeptical of foreign trade.

The GOP is essentially now two parties in a shaky, contentious coalition. These two factions want different policies and different kinds of politics. Their split has made the 2016 GOP primary one of the strangest and most shocking political developments in a generation, but there is more to come.

The authoritarians, in the coming years, will not break the GOP, but they will deeply alter its electoral politics. They will likely put the White House out of Republicans' reach. In Congress and in state legislatures, they will make GOP caucuses more unruly and more extreme, worsening polarization and gridlock. They will weaken the party as an institution, opening up more right-wing primary challenges and an even greater role for outside donors.

They could bring, in other words, an era of Republican politics that combines the disruption and chaos of the Tea Party with the divisive, xenophobic policies and politics of Donald Trump playing out across the electoral map.

"Authoritarian," to be clear, does not refer to actual dictatorships. Nor is it implying that Trump's supporters are the ideological kin of people who supported the likes of Hitler or Stalin.

Rather, political scientists use this term to describe a psychological profile of individual voters who are characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders or other unfamiliar groups.

Authoritarians are socially rigid and prize order and hierarchies. And when they feel threatened — "activated" in political science parlance — they look for strongmen-style leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.

Political scientists have only arrived at this theory relatively recently, but have found a stunningly strong correlation between Americans who score highly on authoritarianism — it is measured using a simple, non-political survey — and who support Donald Trump.

A recent survey by Matthew MacWilliams, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies authoritarianism, for example, found that authoritarianism predicts an individual's support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator, including income, education, or age:

Matthew MacWilliams

Other data points to the same conclusion.

Authoritarians, after quietly coalescing within the GOP for decades, are now revealing themselves as numerous and influential enough to hijack the party's presidential primary — but as too few to carry the GOP to a national victory.

The authoritarians aren't a traditional interest group. Their politics is driven by their psychological profile and the worldview it engenders, not by professional organizers or political consultants. But now they are nevertheless a large and influential constituency.

"The traditional part of the party never worried too much about the authoritarian part of the party, because they always been firmly in control," Vanderbilt political scientist Marc Hetherington, who has spent years studying authoritarians' role within the Republican party, told me.

But now that has changed. Partisan sorting over the years has given the GOP authoritarians a "critical mass" within the party.

"This is a big group of people now, and it's not going away," Hetherington said.

The new era of American authoritarian politics

Donald Trump (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In 2009, the biggest problem in American politics seemed to be partisan polarization, which had grown to alarming heights. That year, Hetherington and his colleague Jonathan Weiler published a book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, arguing something surprising.

Much of the polarization dividing American politics, they wrote, was fueled not just by gerrymandering or money in politics or the other oft-cited variables, but by a little-understood class of voters they called authoritarians.

For decades, authoritarian voters had been divided across both parties, too widely diffused to make themselves felt. They have only recently coalesced within the GOP — and thus become large and united enough to directly shape national politics.

This process started in the mid-1960s, when the GOP began remaking itself as the party of law and order and of traditional values. Under the so-called "Southern strategy," the party positioned itself against civil rights in order to woo disaffected white voters.

The party couldn't have known it at the time, but one of the groups it reached was a demographically and geographically dispersed faction of voters who would only be identified many years later as sharing a psychological profile now called authoritarianism.

People who score highly for authoritarianism, Hetherington explained to me, tend to be very concerned with differences between them and other people whom they see as outgroups. And they're very skeptical of changes to the social order. By opposing civil rights, the Republican party was essentially promising to preserve difference and prevent change — a message that resonated with authoritarians.

The same dynamic played out several times over the coming decades. As the Republican party repeatedly positioned itself against movements calling for social change — women's rights, gay rights, immigration liberalization — they attracted authoritarian voters who found that change threatening.

The result was that, by the 1990s, authoritarian voters had shifted heavily into the Republican party. The GOP had already become the party of American authoritarianism — but it would be another 20 years before this phenomenon would become obvious.

An important thing to understand about authoritarianism is that it can be latent. People who score highly for it will often only behave as authoritarians when they are "activated" by some outside stimulus. Once activated, they will go beyond simply supporting the GOP's quest for "traditional values," instead seeking extreme policies and strongmen leaders — such as Trump and his pledges of vast border walls, mass deportations, and state-sanctioned torture.

That stimulus is typically some combination of perceived threats: either physical threats such as terrorism or, perhaps more powerfully, social threats. That latter category might include demographic change (note the rise of anti-immigration sentiment and rhetoric about "losing our country") or other societal changes that upset existing hierarchies or "traditional" social norms.

This helps explain why authoritarians are emerging now. It is a time of tremendous social change in America: immigration, racial justice movements, evolving norms around gender and sexuality. It is also a time of rising economic pressures, and of heightened fears of terrorism.

These social changes and perceived physical threats are frightening, and likely activating, authoritarian voters — who are overwhelmingly supporting Trump, dividing the GOP, and throwing American politics into chaos.

The forces activating American authoritarians are likely here to stay. Demographic trends indicate that whites will continue shrinking as a portion of the US population, eventually becoming a minority in the 2040s. Immigrant communities are expanding across the country. Gender norms will continue changing, LGBTQ rights will continue expanding, and so on.

As long as these forces prevail in American life, it seems likely that authoritarians and their political preferences are here to stay. The 2016 election, in other words, is not a one-off incident, but the beginning of a new era. And it's an era that looks very difficult for the GOP.

There are now two Republican parties, and neither can win the White House

white house Win McNamee/Getty

The Republican party might simply be incapable of winning the presidency, according to every expert I spoke to, as long as the split between authoritarians and the rest of the party persists.

"I do think that there's this fundamental math problem that they have, that in presidential elections is only going to get worse," Weiler told me. "I don’t think it can be particularly overstated in presidential election years."

Train-wreck Republican presidential primaries, like that of 2016, might simply be the party's fate. The specifics will vary, but enough GOP voters are authoritarian that they will likely continue to support strongmen-style candidates who favor extreme policies, but are nationally unelectable.

As long as the authoritarians remain activated and concentrated in the Republican party, in other words, the national Republican electorate will remain split between authoritarian voters who badly want a Trump-style candidate and more traditional Republican voters who favor more traditional candidates.

The core problem is one of coalitions. Political parties win by drawing together a coalition of supporters. And the Republican party coalition is now dividing so starkly between those two groups — authoritarians on one side, non-authoritarian Republicans on the other — that it is practically two parties.

Politicians who decide to follow Trump's lead and appeal to authoritarians will have a large base in the Republican party, maybe large enough to keep winning Republican presidential primaries. But it won't be large enough to unite the party or to win the general election.

The same could be said of establishment-backed candidates, whose constituency among non-authoritarian Republicans is not necessarily large or unified enough to decisively win their own primary. They might fare better in a national election than a divisive authoritarian candidate could, but the problem is getting the nomination — and then winning the general election if disaffected authoritarian voters decide to stay home.

In this way, in terms of national electoral coalitions, there is not a unified Republican party, not anymore. There is the party of authoritarian voters and the party of non-authoritarians. And, as the 2016 GOP primary shows, when it comes to national elections, those two groups are no longer able or willing to function as a unified party.

In the long term, the rise of authoritarianism is going to make the GOP's coalition problem — its struggle to attract enough demographic groups to be nationally viable — worse, and will make it even harder for the party to solve. The authoritarians are pushing the party toward a smaller coalition just as the GOP needs that coalition to grow.

The 2012 autopsy, for example, was crystal clear that the GOP needs Latino voters to remain nationally viable, and that to attract Latino voters it needs immigration reform.

Not only do authoritarian voters oppose immigration reform, but as they've shown in flocking to Trump, authoritarian voters want the exact opposite of immigration reform: harsher policies toward immigrants.

This is about more than just standard anti-immigration politics. Authoritarians are, at a much deeper level, alarmed by difference and by outsiders, and especially by social change — all of which are triggered by the prospect of large numbers of immigrants settling permanently in the United States.

Authoritarians are also deeply concerned with rules, stability, and hierarchies, which makes illegal immigration, with its connotations of uncontrolled unlawful behavior, even more unsettling to them.

Hetherington and Weiler's 2009 research found a tremendous difference between authoritarian voters' and non-authoritarian voters' views on immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants. And that relationship held true even after they controlled for partisanship, ideology, and a host of demographic factors.

So the Republican party is seemingly trapped: To build a successful long-term coalition, it needs Latino voters; to win Latino voters, it needs immigration reform. But authoritarians are pushing the party in the exact opposite direction.

This same dynamic plays out on other issues. Authoritarians tend to be more hostile to expanding LGBTQ rights, for example, potentially worsening the GOP's already-poor standing with another demographic group.

Unless they can "change their image among certain segments of the population," Weiler said of the GOP, "they’re not going to win presidential elections going forward."

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Congress in the authoritarian era: more divided, more extreme, more unruly

In races for Congress, authoritarianism will hurt the GOP in some ways and help in others, but the end result is going to be pulling the party toward more extreme candidates and policies, dividing the caucus between authoritarians and non-authoritarians, and making it more difficult to govern and organize internally.

The party's internal problems will get worse, in other words, even as its legislative majorities could hold. And that has implications for all of American politics.

"It is clear that there is the authoritarian base that a talented candidate can always tap into and drag the party in a more authoritarian direction," Hetherington said. "That's bad for business."

During presidential election years, Republican candidates will likely suffer in down-ballot races. A split GOP electorate could depress turnout within the party, and a Trump-style extreme GOP candidate could excite Democratic turnout. Everything from House and Senate races to governor's races could become tougher for the GOP.

A study by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia found that the correlation between presidential and Senate election results is the strongest it has been in nearly half a century — meaning a weak GOP presidential candidate could especially hurt down-ballot races.

The GOP's own organizing ability could suffer as well. A party's get out the vote effort tends to rely on presidential campaigns in presidential election years, Republican strategist Rob Jesmer pointed out recently on NPR.

But during midterms, the party will likely do better, giving it a chance to recover from defeats during presidential years.

The people who vote in midterms tend to be whiter and older — demographics that favor the GOP generally and authoritarians particularly. Turnout also tends to be lower, benefiting traditional party constituencies such as conservative Christian groups, which are well-organized at getting their members to the polls.

"They're completely different electorates," Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol said. This means the GOP could alternate every two years between gaining and losing. Skocpol warned that midterm successes would give GOP leaders a false sense of security, making them less likely to confront the party's structural problems.

But even if the net result is that the GOP maintains large caucuses and possibly even majorities in Congress and in state legislatures, those caucuses will likely shift gradually more toward Trump-style authoritarianism.

Republican members of Congress could face more primary challenges, now from authoritarian candidates who speak to the constituency that has gathered around Trump, Hetherington told me. In fact, he believes that primary challenges are already pushing the party in that direction.

"To the extent that these primary challenges are taking place, on the right at least, they are providing people with this choice," he said. "Are the candidates sufficiently nativist? Are you sufficiently anti-transgender? This is the stuff of primary challenges."

A generation of gerrymandering, which has delineated many congressional districts as overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic, means that more ideologically extreme candidates can still do well in House races. Even if authoritarian candidates can't win nationally, they can actually be more viable in smaller races.

As long as the party is out of the White House — which seems likely to become the new norm — it will play the role of opposition party. That dynamic could favor more extreme authoritarian candidates as well.

But getting elected is one thing, and actually governing is another. And governing will become harder as the GOP's de facto division between authoritarians and non-authoritarians plays out in Congress, where we may see an even more extreme and disruptive version of what we saw with the Tea Party insurrections.

The dynamic of the 2016 GOP primary, with authoritarians pitted against establishment-inclined Republicans, could play out first in Congressional elections, and then in the halls of Congress.

Congressional intra-GOP fights will probably not have the pyrotechnics of the 2016 GOP primary, but it will be that same divide, because it is a divide created not by individual candidates but rather by the Republican voters who have split in two.

The consequences go far beyond elections. The gridlock and polarization of the past few years seems likely to get worse, making governance even more difficult.

The party's caucus, whatever its size, seems likely to become more ideologically extreme, more internally disunited, more difficult for the party to manage, and more hostile to compromise with the Democrats, who will likely hold the White House.

Democratic agendas, which often involve expanding programs or imposing new regulations, Skocpol pointed out, are more likely to require new laws. Republicans, on the other hand, can count inaction as a win when they manage to block that kind of expansion. Worsening polarization will exacerbate this.

Republican lawmakers, even if they are inclined to bipartisan cooperation, will likely learn to resist it for their own self-preservation. No GOP politician who values her job will want to come anywhere near an issue that could anger authoritarian voters, such as immigration reform.

"There can be a certain amount of glee on the left about the Republican party's dysfunction," the Brookings Institution's Vanessa Williamson, whose research focuses on the dynamics within the Republican party, told me, "but I think that's misplaced. The problems in the Republican party aren't just problems in the Republican party. They're problems for all Americans, and for the Democratic party."

States as laboratories of authoritarian politics

Trump greets supporters in Alabama Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

These same forces could play out within state legislatures, Hetherington warned. It is difficult to say whether or not that would jeopardize GOP control; it will both excite authoritarian voters and alienate others.

But given how many state legislatures are presently dominated by Republicans — one of the party's biggest political accomplishments of the Obama era — authoritarian lawmakers could have the opportunity to exercise an unusual degree of influence there.

In some state legislatures, GOP control has become so total that they function as something like single-party systems, as American University law professor Herman Schwartz has written, giving the GOP much greater control there.

But this could provide an opening to authoritarian candidates. By rising within state-level party structures, authoritarians can also gain power within state legislatures, either by succeeding incumbents when they retire or via primary challenges. We may see the first hints of an authoritarian policy agenda playing out in these bodies.

The implications in statewide races — for governor or for the Senate — are more difficult to predict, and will likely vary from state to state.

In so-called "purple states," where voters are split between the Republican and Democratic party, the effect could look similar to what we're seeing in presidential elections: a GOP electorate that divides between two factions, one of them too extreme to win state-wide, thus allowing Democrats to more easily win.

But in GOP-dominated "red states," the outcome is more uncertain.

Perhaps GOP voters in those states will divide, or perhaps authoritarian-minded voters will nominate Trump-style candidates who alienate the rest of the state, thus allowing Democrats a shot at winning otherwise unwinnable races.

Or perhaps authoritarian voters in those states will be numerous enough to carry a gubernatorial or senatorial primary, Democrats will be too few or too disorganized to defeat them, and we will see a Trump-style senator or governor emerge in the next few years.

As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked, states can be as laboratories of democracy. That could include, it now seems, the practice of authoritarian politics.

Why the GOP won't split apart: partisanship

A fight between supporters and protesters at Donald Trump's cancelled rally in Chicago.
An argument between Trump supporters and protesters at Trump's cancelled rally in Chicago.
Jabin Botsford/Getty

The experts I spoke to agreed that the Republican party, whatever its problems, has one powerful asset on its side: partisanship.

This will likely keep the party together, at least nominally, allowing it to avoid either collapsing or officially dividing, no matter how bad its internal fissures become.

Party affiliation, Democrat and Republican, has increasingly become a matter of personal identity in this country. And, crucially, it seems to be driven by antipathy toward the opposing party much more than loyalty toward the one people support.

That level of partisan bias gives the GOP a great deal of protection against its voters defecting to the Democrats. In other words, there is something that still unites Republican voters in both the authoritarian and non-authoritarian camps: They really, really don't like Democrats.

As Ezra Klein wrote last year, the National Election Study uses a "feelings thermometer" to measure people's attitudes about their own party and about the opposing party. The results are striking. People's opinions of their own party have remained roughly similar since the 1970s. But their opinions of the opposing party have plummeted in recent years.

And that effect seems to be especially strong for Republicans. A 2014 Pew survey found that 43 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents held "very unfavorable" views of the Democrats, whereas only 38 percent of Democrats held the same view of Republicans.

As bitter as the 2016 GOP primary has been, and as deep as the divisions are likely to remain, this partisan feeling is likely to keep the two very different Republican factions unified under one party.

Of course, even if the GOP authoritarians and the GOP traditionalists agree about what the party isn't — the Democrats, blech — that doesn't bring them any closer to agreeing on what the party is. Partisan loyalty can mitigate the consequences of that problem, but it's not a solution.

Can the GOP solve its authoritarianism problem?

Missed me? (Scott Olson/Getty Images) Scott Olson/Getty Images

The full impact of authoritarianism on American politics will be amplified by the Republican party's other big problem: the weakness of the party itself as an institution.

What matters is not just that authoritarians' influence within the party is rising, but when it is happening: at a moment when the party is institutionally far weaker than it has been in the past. Its leadership is less in control of rank-and-file, less able to steer voters, and often contradicted or undermined by party elites, such as donors, who have a growing ability to push their own agendas.

These two problems are not just coinciding: They are exacerbating one another.

Trump has been able to exploit party institutional weakness to the advantage of his own campaign. But he is not just benefiting from that institutional weakness, he is also reinforcing it — meaning that his success today may make it more difficult for the party to stop other Trumps in the future.

This GOP institutional crisis began in 2008, when the party suffered a sweeping electoral defeat, losing the White House and, in both houses of Congress, seeing its minorities shrink further.

"There was an intellectual vacuum in the Republican party," Williamson explained, that left it ill-equipped to recover. "George Bush left office with very, very low approval. And then the McCain campaign collapsed, leaving very little behind in terms of institutions."

Instead of rebuilding or reinventing itself, the party elected Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, who spent the next two years mismanaging the party, spending it into debt, and watching the caucus riven by the rise of the Tea Party.

In 2010, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision transformed the way elections were financed. Donors could spend unlimited amounts of money through Super PACs, with no need to channel contributions through the party apparatus.

The result was that private money started to circumvent — thus undermine — the already-weak party institutions.

As of 2001, Republican party committees controlled about 50 percent of all money spent on conservative-aligned campaigns, issue advertising, and related expenditures, according to Skocpol's research with Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. Today, the GOP's share has fallen to about 30 percent, meaning its direct financial role has shrunk almost by half.

The party has been partially displaced by private conservative groups funded by wealthy individuals, such as the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.

Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez

The donor class is now so powerful that it can direct its money toward specific causes and candidates, as it did with the Tea Party. When donors and party leaders have different agendas and work at cross purposes, this weakens the party as a whole.

At the same time, the donor class tried to impose orthodoxy on candidates and party officials — for example, opposition to social programs — in a way that put too much strain on the coalition.

"The more they try to enforce an orthodoxy, the more they suppress elements in that coalition that then get angry," Lee Drutman, a political scientist who studies intra-party conflict and a contributor to Vox's Polyarchy blog, told me. "Fundamentally, it’s a managerial challenge: How do you accommodate a large diversity of opinions? And if you can't do that, then you lose."

The Republican establishment, less able to control a party that is increasingly driven by donors acting on their own agendas, has grown weak and fractured. The scale of the authoritarian movement would have shaken any party, but today's GOP is especially unable to resist or control it.

"I'm not sure what Republican party establishment there is any more," Skocpol said. "In many ways, the Republican party committees have been hollowed out. They don't control very many resources any more."

"Their 'establishment' consists of Mitch McConnell and, I guess, Paul Ryan to some degree," she went on. "And John Boehner before him, although he was a pretty weak establishment. He couldn't even hold on."

And so, when the party needed to put some sort of voice of authority up against Donald Trump, Williamson said, it had few options. "You've got some Fox News anchors you can choose from, or you've got Mitt Romney."

The party is stuck, lacking the strength to pull itself out of this problem.

If nothing else changes, it's only going to get more stuck: The GOP coalition now consists heavily of demographic groups, particularly whites, whose share of the population is slowly shrinking. As that continues, the party will have to increasingly cater to a coalition that is only getting smaller, and with policies that further alienate the rest of the electorate.

"Whether the change is demographic or generational, or a combination of the two, that day of reckoning is coming," Hetherington said, referring to a possible day when the GOP is truly nationally non-viable.

"The way this came into being was through strategic political choices to attract voters," he went on. "And when that ceases to work any longer, the party gets killed, a new set of leaders comes in, and they do something different."


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