Jon Ossoff doesn’t like to talk about his age. His reticence is understandable. Since the media and liberal voters foisted the 30-year-old political neophyte from the Atlanta suburbs into the national spotlight, he’s been celebrated by Democrats as a wunderkind who might lead the resistance against Trump and simultaneously ridiculed by Republicans, who fear the same thing, as a “spoiled frat boy.” As the front-runner in the heated special election race to replace Tom Price, whom Trump elevated to be his secretary of health and human services, in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District—a seat not held by a Democrat since the 1970s—he has endured numerous attacks targeting his relative youth. One ad spliced authentic clips of Ossoff costumed as Han Solo from a college spoof video with stock footage of frat boys doing keg stands. “I don’t want to marginalize youth,” recently mused Bruce LeVell, 53, former head of Trump’s national diversity coalition and one of 11 Republican, five Democratic, and two independent candidates who will face off against Ossoff on April 18. “But I think that a wealth of life experiences can be a tremendous asset for a congressional seat.”
Speaking last week in Alpharetta, Georgia, at a mansion overlooking a lake, Ossoff had attracted so many supporters that the property’s owner nervously joked his deck might not be able to support the crowd. In the previous three hours, we’d visited four separate rallies where hordes of Democrats lined roads with signs reading “Vote Your Ossoff.” “I’m trying to make the case to voters across the political spectrum,” Ossoff told the assembly, “that someone who brings a younger perspective”—then he corrected himself—”a fresher perspective… can change the culture in Washington more effectively than someone who has run for office nine or ten times.”
With his campaign promise to “Make Trump Furious,” Ossoff is riding a wave of disaffection among all Democrats, but millennials are an especially important part of his coalition. Consistently polling in the mid-to-low-40s, Ossoff needs only a handful more percentage points to break the 50% threshold on April 18 and claim outright victory. If he fails to obtain a majority he’ll face a much tougher runoff vote on June 20 versus the second-place finisher, in support of whom a critical mass of Republican voters might unite. The Sixth District is deeply Republican, with a white, elderly, and affluent voter base, which may be hard to sway from their traditional voting habits. But the district includes 146,000 people aged 18 to 34—about 27% of all eligible voters in the district—and Ossoff is relying, in part, on these young voters to turn out in unprecedented numbers and nudge him to victory. The race is so close that one of the only ways for Ossoff to win, in other words, is for large numbers of millennials to do for him what they didn’t do for Hillary Clinton: vote.
“My generation has gotten complacent about our rights,” Alison Curnie, 31, said on the deck overlooking the lake, as she endorsed Ossoff to the cheering crowd. “We thought they would be there in perpetuity. But if anything good has come out of this last election, it’s that we’re no longer complacent.”
During the two days I spent on the campaign trail, young people were an inescapable presence. Most staffers and volunteers I encountered were of the millennial generation, though there were plenty of older people as well. Ossoff’s supporters believe his youth is a positive quality, a way to bring a new mindset to Washington. As Matt Tompkins, 26, told me, “Ossoff is the first time we’ve had someone who represents our socially conscious values. Someone who’s 60 doesn’t have the worldview of being raised in modern reality with technology, the internet, diversity, and everything else.”
So far, millennials have been a dormant power in politics. As John Della Volpe, the Director of Polling at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, told me: “There are more millennials than any other generation on earth, but they don’t vote in the same proportion that other generations do. The main reason they don’t vote is they don’t see a tangible impact from it, so the degree to which Ossoff can convince them that this election matters is going to be key.”
And so while a flurry of punditry in recent days has interpreted Ossoff’s campaign as a predictor of whether or not anti-Trump sentiment will be enough to buoy Dems to congressional victories over the next two years, his race also raises another and perhaps more pressing question: Can this 30-year-old, and the anti-Trump resistance of which he’s been anointed figurehead and bellwether, re-energize young voters’ enthusiasm for democracy in general and Democrats in particular?
“Previously, I’d been a registered Republican, even Libertarian leaning,” Curnie told me on the deck. “I used to have the luxury of being a Republican because I didn’t think anyone was coming for my birth control and civil rights. But this election has made me realize we’ve got to stick up for our civil rights before we worry about tax brackets.”
Ossoff’s success owes a great deal to his becoming an internet phenomenon. When he launched his campaign in early January with an email telling voters to “Make Trump Furious,” it caught the attention of liberal bloggers anxiously following the third Congressional contest of the Trump era. Daily Kos, the left-leaning website, began promoting him. Donations poured in, with each fundraising success spurring more coverage. Today he has amassed more than $8.3 million in about three months, much of it from out-of-state voters—a record for a candidate who is not self-financed. His campaign says he has received nearly 200,000 separate donations from all over the nation, at an average size of $43.
Just as Ossoff has seized national attention in a particularly social media-savvy way, his life before the race shows how a generation of millennials may be preparing for politics. Raised in the suburb of Northlake, Ossoff always dreamt of becoming a politician. He planted yard placards with his parents in support of local Democrats as a boy. By 2003, his childhood friend Karl Langberg, 30, remembers that he was running a blog devoted to politics and debating online with older readers, who didn’t know they were arguing with a teenager behind the screen. At Paideia, a pricy private high school, he started an alternative publication to the school newspaper, which he named the Great Speckled Pi in homage to a liberal underground Atlanta newspaper of the sixties and seventies. By then, his friends knew he wanted to one day run for office. “There was an understanding among our group,” says Dustin Chambers, another childhood friend, “that he wanted to run someday and he was equipping himself to do so.”
Ossoff’s focus on government continued while studying at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, during which he also worked part-time for Representative Hank Johnson. Facebook went global when he was a freshmen, forever transforming politics by recording every embarrassing moment of one’s youth. “But,” Chambers said, “Jon immediately became aware of how that altered the political landscape. It made clear to him that he needed to be a squeaky-clean guy.” After graduating, he managed Johnson’s 2010 reelection campaign and then worked for him fulltime on the Hill, specializing in national security issues.
Ossoff’s work for Johnson has been the substance of the one attack that has dinged his reputation. He carefully claims: “I’ve got five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress. I held top secret security clearance.” All of which is true—though two of those years he was working part-time and he only held top-level clearance for five months at the end of his time on the Hill. “Technically, Ossoff walks a very careful line,” a Washington Post fact-checker wrote. “But the overall impression is misleading.”
In 2013, he earned a master’s degree at the London School of Economics, and then became CEO of Insight TWI, a VICE-like new media company, whose films have documented corruption among judges in Africa and the front-line battle against ISIS. As he traversed the globe with a camera, he still thought about seeking office, but assumed it would be far in the future.
On the night of November 8, he was filming a right-wing militia in rural Georgia as men sat around a campfire and watched the election results roll in on their cellphones. Distraught, he drove an hour-and-a-half to Manuel’s, a famous Atlanta watering hole for politicos, where he met his childhood friend Chambers and watched Trump claim victory. “I had never seen him so scared, so unsure,” Chambers, who is now a volunteer on Ossoff’s campaign, recalls. “He is one of those people who always has the answers. That night, I could see him calculating a lot of different disturbing outcomes for the next four years.”
The day after his appearance at the lake house, Ossoff sat onstage in the Dunwoody High School auditorium along with 17 other candidates—the full spectrum of American political opinion, from the Tea Party to moderate Republicans, including Karen Handel, his nearest competitor, with 15% of the vote in polls. The majority of voters were white-haired or bald, and paged through programs as each candidate spoke, making notes. But most millennials in attendance already had their minds made up: they wore Ossoff blue and loudly cheered him.
While he waited for his turn to speak, Ossoff kept his gaze fixed on each speechifying opponent, as a Republican tracker in jean shorts and hiking boots aimed a mini-cam at his face. A tracker has been video-taping Ossoff’s every move for about two months, sometimes shouting questions at him, trying to force a reaction that can be turned into an attack ad or negative news story.
When Ossoff took the microphone, he said, “I worked on Capitol Hill for five years, and I saw how things work and how they do not. I saw the partisanship, the gridlock, the pettiness, and the corruption. I think it’s time for fresh leadership in Washington.” Speaking, he kept his hands clasped in front of him, his fingers carefully interlaced, never flourishing his arms or stabbing a finger to emphasize a point. The rest of his speech sketched plans to grow the district’s burgeoning technology sector and to fight government corruption, though it presented few details and lacked the shots at Trump that initially fired up the base. If there’s one signature issue that Ossoff has promised to tackle in Congress, it’s bringing his investigative documentary chops to bear on Washington—but the specifics of what muck he’d rake are hazy.
Ultimately, this is probably part of his strategy. Acknowledging the Republican tilt of the district, Ossoff has kept his recent statements just a few inches left of the center and vague. He has appealed to progressive Berniecrats primarily by positioning himself against Trump, but without pushing their core platform positions like single-payer healthcare, free tuition, or steep taxes on the rich.
Ossoff also has to appeal to the nearly 317,000 minorities in the district, especially in DeKalb County, where many are concentrated. However, the worst early voting turnout has been in the heavily Democratic DeKalb County, though this may partially be due to the fact that it has the worst voting access in the district.
It’s in regard to Ossoff’s fuzzy policies that this race circles back to larger questions about the fight against Trump. Can a classic liberal, whose positions seem more in line with the pre-Trump-era Democratic party establishment, spark millennials to vote in significant numbers? If Ossoff ducks leading youthful progressives, is anti-Trump fervor and the implicit promise of shared life-experience going to be enough for them to identity with him?
It’s a question the party is wrestling with on a national scale. Many liberals are angered that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t invest in the race for the seat vacated when Trump picked Mike Pompeo to become Director of the CIA, believing they didn’t have a shot to win in the deeply red Wichita, Kansas, district—only to find that the Republican candidate barely triumphed. Ossoff’s surprise front-runner status is a testament to the power of the anti-Trump movement, but the flaws in his coalition also speak to fractures in the larger Democratic party alliance that may sabotage his chances of electoral success.
Ossoff’s reticence to deeply engage with policy questions, and his statuesque self-control on the campaign trail, has led some observers to criticize him as stiff and lacking depth, including a recent New York magazine profiler. When I asked Ossoff for his response to the article, he said: “I’m trying to win a congressional race, not give spellbinding magazine interviews.”
But many of his millennial fans interpret his self-possession differently: as the result of growing up in an era when every stray bit of speech can end up broadcast across the world. “He knows that he’s being recorded every second,” Alexandra Brosovich, 24, whom I met at a rally, later told me on the phone. “Someone who grew up in the 1960s before cellphone videos and social media just doesn’t understand how careful you’ve got to be when everything’s recorded. He made an instant connection with me and my friends.”
Political reporters often want to call the same back-slapping, Big Mac-chomping extroversion authenticity. But maybe at heart Ossoff is simply an even-tempered, conscientious, and deliberate man. He’s the kind of guy who used the word “duplicative” in casual conversation, and at rallies tried to substitute ten-dollar words for ones like “folks.” According to his childhood friend Chambers, Ossoff even studied Barack Obama as a public persona to emulate. Ossoff summed up his own character to me by saying, “I think, for me, it’s important never to get too high and never to get too low. I just try to remain in a grounded, balanced place.”
One day, we visited a baseball field just a few minutes walk from the redbrick house where Ossoff grew up (which still had a fallen Clinton-Kaine yard sign lying by its driveway).
As Ossoff and I slung a grass-stained baseball back and forth, even after he shucked his suit jacket, his speech remained precise. When I asked about his strongest memory of that field, he answered: “Just playing catch with my dad, man, in the crisp autumn air, just as the leaves are starting to turn, when you can taste the first bite of winter, coming down here for that last time before it gets too dark, before it gets too cold.”
Those close to Ossoff acknowledge he is meticulous, but also point out that his exactingness is subordinate to his adventurousness—whether running for Congress or producing documentaries about a female battalion in Iraq. Ossoff has had a pilot license since he was a teenager. Today, in rare interludes of free time, he will gather a small group of friends before dawn, rent a Cessna, and then fly them to remote airstrips in the Appalachian Mountains, where they will hike all day before returning to Atlanta by dusk. “I love the challenge of mountains,” he told me, “the accomplishment of the summit, the vantage point, and the solitude.”
Despite Ossoff’s discipline, spend enough time with him and you’ll find his intensity palpable. The unspooling way he pitched the baseball at me looked effortless—he didn’t even break a sweat despite his button-up and tie—but as he pounded my palm with pinpoint accuracy, my hand numbed. Walking off the field, I asked, “What’s the event that made you who you are today?”
He looked around at the backstop and the basketball courts of the nearby elementary school. Twenty-four seconds slid by. He was new enough to this that he didn’t have an answer immediately at hand.
Then he said, with a bit of a snarl curling his voice for the first time, “I remember kids getting bullied on the playground. It really pissed me off. And right now, there are a lot of people being bullied in this country.”
I was not all that concerned when the news first broke last week. The Strike Group based around the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was diverting from a visit and exercises with the Australians and instead heading north from Singapore towards the Western Pacific (and, possibly, the Sea of Japan). The move was seen as saber rattling by many on cable news and in various op-eds, and a positive invitation for chaotic hand-wringing by those of a more anxious nature. But my own assessment was more along the lines of a giant yawn. This has not changed, a whit, since the talking heads here and there have lost their collective minds, worrying about an American strike on North Korea.
People, it ain’t happening.
Were something like that in the plans, you would see a whole lot of other moving military parts: Other carrier groups heading west from California, Marines being mobilized on Okinawa, amphibious ships being sent out, and Air Force and Army units being sent to staging bases.
None of that has happened, so let’s all relax.
North Korea, of course, responded with their normal bluster. As reported by The New York Daily News they issued this warning:
“This goes to prove that the U.S. reckless moves for invading the DPRK have reached a serious phase of its scenario,” the spokesman said in a statement, using an acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “If the U.S. dares opt for a military action, crying out for ‘preemptive attack’ and ‘removal of the headquarters,’ the DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”
They react this way every single time, to every single item, so this press release went in the “so what” file immediately.
The bottom line is that, beyond all this hyperbole, the reality of the situation is much less about any American strike on North Korea. Here is why: We do not have the assets in that group to really do much, and in this case, conducting a strike against their homeland would be utter idiocy.
The US Navy battle group is assigned to the 3rd Fleet and it consists, officially, of just four major warships, the Aircraft Carrier Carl Vinson, the Aegis Destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy, and the Ticonderoga class Cruiser USS Lake Champlain. We do not know, but it can be assumed with some degree of confidence that the group may also be operating in concert with one or more submarines, either regularly or temporarily as the situation dictates.
In conventional terms, a group like that does have the potential to pack a pretty good wallop. That close to Japan they would not be overly worried about using a larger percentage of their missile load such as the TLAMs I wrote about last week. But you might as well leave aside the carrier and its air wing, because that is moderately useless for offensive options in any North Korean scenario. (Except, perhaps, as a deception or distraction.) Each of the destroyers, however, has some 96 vertical-launch tubes that can carry both TLAMs and “Standard” air-defense missiles (the SM-2 to be specific), among others. The cruiser Lake Champlain carries an even bigger load, with 122 launching tubes. But as explained last week, those TLAMs would not necessarily be all that useful, given their fairly limited munitions options. The TLAMs carry either pure High Explosives, or a scatterable sub-munition option. Neither of which is much good for punching into things like hardened runways or caves dug into the sides of mountains.
So why send that naval package up north? Well, there is one system that has not gotten a ton of media attention, though I am not sure why. That system really could be a useful tool, and one that might be used to send a message while at the same time not leave us open to blame for conducting an offensive strike. It is a combination of the very sophisticated “Aegis” radar system carried by both the destroyers and the cruiser, and the upgraded “Standard” missile known as the SM-3.
The SM-3 missile (technically the RIM-161, Standard Missile -3) can shoot down other missiles, even ballistic ones. Even satellites in outer space for that matter. And although we do not know if those type of missiles are loaded aboard the Lake Champlain at this instant (information like that would be classified), if I was a betting man, I would probably lay some money that they are.
Why does this matter? Because in addition to being pretty loud lately, you might have noticed that North Korea has been testing a lot of missiles. On top of that, the North Koreans just hosted another one of their big self-congratulatory military parades. Sometimes they like to fire off hardware around the time of these events, international treaties and sanctions be damned. Usually those missiles are fired to the east, into the Sea of Japan, and sometimes into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. According to preliminary reports, this hasn’t happened yet. But if it did?
Let’s get back to our battlegroup, equipped with the SM-3s aboard an Aegis cruiser, operating in international waters well away from North Korea itself. What would international opinion be if we shot an illegally fired missile out of the sky when it was headed towards Japan? It would mean demonstrating at one stroke both North Korea’s inability to actually use those missiles they are trying so hard to develop, and enforcing the sanctions against those same launches that are already in place from the international community.
For now? Let’s all take a deep breath.
A security guard stops a customer as she tries to enter a well-stocked aisle in a large department store. “Sorry, ma’am,” the guard says. “This sale is for our silver, gold, and platinum shoppers only.” He points her toward the meager discount corner at the back of the store, where bronze-status shoppers are allowed. She passes attendants who smile only at the elite shoppers, offering them refreshments and guiding them toward the best deals. When she stops for gas on the way home, she gets in a long line for the basic pump, while the priority pump sits empty and unused. At the grocery store, she doesn’t have enough points to approach the organic produce.
This beleaguered consumer lives in an alternate reality where businesses can discriminate between their high-value and low-value clientele at will, enticing the biggest spenders to stay while marginalizing bargain hunters and coupon cutters. Most companies couldn’t get away with triaging their customers this way. But some already do: airlines.
This inequality is enshrined in frequent-flyer programs. They’re not like typical rewards systems, which simply encourage loyalty with discounts. Instead, they create elaborate hierarchies, discriminating between platinum flyers and coach passengers in nearly every step of the air-travel experience, from booking to baggage claim.
These programs also help airlines gather data on their passengers. They track details like customers’ favorite routes, the fares they pay, and extra services they buy, says John Strong, an aviation expert who teaches at William and Mary’s business school.
David Dao, the doctor who was dragged from his seat on a United flight last weekend, was a victim of the airline’s algorithm (and, of course, of security officers in Chicago, who left him with a concussion, a broken nose, and two missing teeth). United’s contract of carriage, which lays out how the airline will treat its passengers, outlines how passengers might be “denied boarding involuntarily”:
The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent-flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.
Dao was more likely to be chosen than others because he wasn’t connecting to another flight, and based on the fact that the algorithm selected him, he probably didn’t rank very highly in United’s rewards program. Strong says a passenger’s itinerary and his or her value as a customer are the main criteria an airline considers when picking who to bump from a flight. “While airlines have the information to create a more detailed pecking order, they don’t go much beyond that in practice,” Strong said.
Airlines can game out just how much each customer is worth, and treat them accordingly, said Joseph Turow, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania. “Irrespective of any individual fare, they have this overarching notion of who their valued customers are, and what their lifetime value is,” he said. “And because of the structure of the system, they can take advantage of it to the point of being mean to people.”
Business travelers, who are less likely than leisure travelers to comparison-shop for airfare, reap the rewards of pricey, company-sponsored travel in the form of miles. They’re pampered, while passengers in the back, who are more likely to have simply searched for the best deal, are left without many frills.
Giving priority to some isn’t a practice unique to the airline industry, says Strong. “More valuable customers at brokerage houses get dedicated access communications and cheaper trades; hotels offer free wi-fi and other complimentary benefits to their best customers,” he said. “Almost anyone who has a loyalty program differentiates benefits by the value of different groups of customers.”
But the gap between coach and business class is particularly wide. That might partly stem from a lack of competition in the industry, which gives airlines a relatively large amount of control over their customers. Because of the disparity between premium and economy fares—and companies’ willingness to buy expensive seats for their employees, sometimes at the last minute—airlines are mostly interested in luring business passengers. But as they attract those travelers with fancy perks, they provide the economy cabin with only the bare minimum.
One reason this is the status quo is that there’s little budget passengers can do to avoid an airline they don’t like. The big U.S. carriers have near-monopolies over air travel from many (though not all) major American airports, leaving price-sensitive travelers little choice when they fly. That makes boycotting a major airline nearly impossible, as Christopher Ingraham wrote in The Washington Post this week. And so carriers can get away with a lot more than, say, retailers or gas stations: If Nordstrom’s starts treating its low-margin customers poorly, they’ll just walk on over to Neiman Marcus, or Bloomingdale’s, or Saks.
Those retailers can, however, discriminate between their high- and low-value customers more subtly. They might dole out coupons and discounts to encourage their “best” shoppers to keep coming back—and withhold them from the “bad” ones, like those who have a habit of returning items, or who buy things that don’t make the company very much money. Online stores can do this more surreptitiously, by showing different shoppers different prices and ads, and nudging them toward—or away from—certain products and services.
One thing that might be warding off the platinum-sale alternate reality in these other industries is antitrust law. These regulations help keep retailers from forming huge, inescapable monopolies—the kind that United, Delta, American, and Southwest enjoy in parts of the country, thanks to lax regulation of the industry in recent years—and prevent them from deploying these airline-perfected tactics.
For now, Turow says, other industries “don’t have nearly the ability to be as arrogant as the airlines are.” They have to be quieter about their discriminatory tactics, and maintain a pleasant enough atmosphere that won’t drive away their customers. “Whether this will ever change so they can get such a grip on people,” Turow says, “I don’t know.” But as antitrust policies weaken—as they have over the past few decades—and monopolies grow in power and number, the distance between airlines and the rest of the business world might be in danger of shrinking.