2019
May
28
Tuesday

I’ve witnessed the power of music. The performer begins to play and a hush falls over the audience. There’s a sense of soulfulness, deeper than beauty, that in that moment unites people in rapt attention, because they know they are witnessing something extraordinary.

On Sunday, before an exhibition match of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, World War II veteran Peter DuPré accomplished that with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and his harmonica.

Sporting a cap boldly emblazoned “World War II Veteran,” playing a slow rendition that added color and notes to the familiar version, the nonagenarian transcended the moment.

On the eve of Memorial Day and less than two weeks from the 75th anniversary of D-Day, he was playing to honor the country he served all those years ago. And for a nation that sometimes seems at war with itself, the former U.S. Army medic was reminding us of another era when everyday people served and sacrificed with a unity of purpose that would seem surprising today. Behind all those chants of USA, do we remember that’s shorthand for the United States of America?

It turns out the women’s soccer team had met Mr. DuPré before, when he and they were at Normandy Beach in January. By this morning, accolades for Sunday’s performance were pouring in on social media. “Made me cry tears of joy and gratitude for your service and every other individual who decides to wear a uniform to put America’s safety and the safety of those around the world first,” tweeted former star Brandi Chastain.

Now, onto today’s lineup of stories, which includes a look at the challenges of Afghan peace talks, what it’s like to report from Capitol Hill, and the work of a bridge-builder between Mexicans in the U.S. and their home country.

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1. Green politics comes surging into the mainstream in EU elections

After years of treating the environment as a secondary concern when it comes to politics, many Europeans are now bringing their worries about climate change into the voting booth.

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The success of the Green parties in the weekend’s European parliamentary elections came as a surprise to most. But it came as the environment weighs heavily on voters’ minds in the prosperous northwestern European countries where the Greens did best.

The recent impetus has come partly from two alarming reports on the potentially catastrophic future mankind faces if global temperatures continue to rise. Last October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world has just 12 years in which to take radical action if temperature rises are to be held to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Earlier this month, a U.N. study spelled out how seriously humans are destroying nature, predicting that 1 million species of wildlife are at risk of becoming extinct within decades.

If the Greens surfed a wave of renewed climate activism, they also profited at the European elections from a marked falloff in support for traditional centrist parties. “Voters don’t feel so tribally attached to left- or right-wing parties anymore,” says Christopher Rootes, an expert on the international environmental movement. “When centrist parties become discredited, the Greens are well placed to take advantage of that.”

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1. Green politics comes surging into the mainstream in EU elections

Amid the many uncertainties that cloud the future of the fragmented new European Parliament, one thing is clear: The Greens will enjoy unprecedented leverage to put the planet’s climate front and center on the political scene.

Their unexpected success in weekend elections gives the Greens a key voice on environmental policy in the world’s largest trading bloc. “Today is about a Green Wave cascading through Europe,” tweeted an exultant Magid Magid, a successful British Green candidate. “We’re going to turn the tide of history!”

Mr. Magid may be exaggerating. But never has the environment – particularly the climate emergency – weighed as heavily on voters’ minds as it did in the prosperous northwestern European countries where the Greens did best in the elections.

The Greens boosted their presence from 51 to 70 of Parliament’s 751 seats. “The results were … a reflection of what has been happening with the climate movement over the last year,” says Jean-François Julliard, head of Greenpeace in France, where the Greens came third in the polls.

Across the continent, tens of thousands of high school students are going on weekly strike in “FridaysforFuture,” a campaign led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg to prod adult politicians into taking the action needed to slow global warming.

Other European protesters have joined “Extinction Rebellion,” whose activists have staged eye-catching stunts such as stripping off in the public gallery of the British Parliament and gathering enough demonstrators to bring central London’s shopping district to a grinding halt.

The changing mood is clear, says Mr. Julliard. “Greenpeace has never had so many volunteers showing up spontaneously,” he says. “And we just got 2 million signatures on a petition; that was an online record” in France. “I have the impression that we [environmental activists] have reached a milestone we had never managed before.”

Time to do something

The recent impetus has come partly from two alarming reports on the potentially catastrophic future mankind faces if global temperatures continue to rise. Last October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world has just 12 years in which to take radical action if temperature rises are to be held to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Earlier this month, a U.N. study spelled out how seriously humans are destroying nature, predicting that 1 million species of wildlife are at risk of becoming extinct within decades.

“There seems to have been an endless parade of bad news on the environment front and a general feeling that not enough is being done while time goes marching on,” says Christopher Rootes, an expert on the international environmental movement who teaches at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.

Susana Vera/Reuters
A Greenpeace banner is displayed on a European Commission building ahead of a European Union leaders summit to discuss Brexit in Brussels on April 10.

If the Greens surfed a wave of renewed climate activism, they also profited at the European elections from a marked fall-off in support for the traditionally dominant center-left and center-right parties.

“Voters don’t feel so tribally attached to left- or right-wing parties anymore,” says Professor Rootes. “When centrist parties become discredited, the Greens are well placed to take advantage of that.”

This was especially clear in Germany, where the Greens doubled their vote from the last European Parliament elections by taking a million voters from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and another million from the moderate-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). That made them the second-largest party in the country.

As traditional parties that were built on class and economic interests fade, new parties expressing more cultural outlooks are on the rise. The Greens’ surge has mirrored that of the right-wing, nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany, says political analyst Yascha Mounk.

When the electorate polarizes between national-minded populists and globally minded internationalists, Mr. Mounk says, using criteria such as national identity or the environment, “the Greens present the clearest alternative … counter-steering against the populist vision.”

That has projected the party’s message beyond environmental issues, appealing more broadly to liberals in countries such as Germany, France, Ireland, Britain, Finland, Luxembourg, and Denmark – places where the Greens did particularly well in the elections.

Voters tempted by the Greens are also reassured by their record in office. Green parties have joined national governments in Germany, France, Sweden, and other countries, and are currently in nine regional coalition governments in Germany. “The Greens have shown that they are capable of governing, not just of protesting,” says Mr. Julliard.

‘Something of a luxury problem’?

But Mr. Magid’s “Green Wave” was by no means a continent-wide affair. The Greens have scant appeal in Mediterranean countries or in central and eastern Europe, and never stood a chance there.

In Spain, Greece, and Portugal, civilian governments emerging from military dictatorship in the 1980s were intent on modernizing through industrialization, says Andrew Dowling, an expert on Spanish politics at Cardiff University in Wales. “This remained the priority.”

In Central Europe, voters often have more pressing concerns than the environment, such as their standard of living, or corruption. “Green politics tend to be strong in ‘post-materialist’ sectors of society,” Dr. Dowling says, in countries where enough voters are comfortably enough off to sacrifice their consumption levels in order to save the planet.

In southern European countries, where youth unemployment can run as high as 50%, “there is a belief that environmental concerns are something of a luxury problem,” says Jonathan Polk, who teaches European politics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Green parties may not be strong in southern Europe, but their message is gaining strength. Portugal elected its first Green member of the European Parliament in these elections. In Spain, the ruling Socialist party has adopted an environmental mantle, offering a Green New Deal in snap national elections last month and stressing a just and sustainable economy in the European campaign.

Green issues are gaining political traction elsewhere. In Sweden, for example, though the Green party may have lost seats, “most of the major parties made climate change and environmental issues a fairly prominent component of their European Parliament campaign,” says Mr. Polk.

The head of the CDU in Germany acknowledged it had been “a mistake” not to have paid more attention to climate issues during the campaign. And in France, President Emmanuel Macron is trying hard to convince voters that there is substance behind his “Make Our Planet Great Again” rhetoric.

France, though, offers the starkest illustration of the risks that can be involved in “going green.” The continuing, often violent protests by the Yellow Vests (“gilets jaunes”) were sparked by the imposition of a carbon tax on fuel, which was later revoked.

In Germany earlier this month, national TV station ARD published an opinion poll that found 81% of respondents agreed global warming was a problem that needed addressing. Only 34%, however, thought that a carbon tax should be imposed.

“The minority of voters who see the climate as a salient priority is growing in numbers and in conviction,” says Professor Rootes. “But the economic concerns that the bulk of the electorate face remain compelling. They will need reassurance that policy measures to deal with climate change will not make them worse off.”

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2. Why Taliban peace talks are stuck in neutral

In Afghanistan, escalation on both sides calls into question the sincerity of peace talks even as it reinforces their imperative. ‘Peace should come at whatever price,’ the emotional brother of a Taliban victim told our reporter.

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A Taliban suicide car bomb May 8 in Kabul seemed to mark an exclamation point as the latest round of U.S.-led talks on Afghanistan came to an uncertain conclusion. The attack was carried out amid a broader spring offensive – and an Afghan government and U.S. military counteroffensive – in which all sides are escalating violence even as they talk about peace.

How long that dual dynamic can hold without demonstrable progress toward ending the war is not clear. “The current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. “We need more and faster progress.”

Simultaneously talking peace and fighting to maximize leverage is understandable, but also a source of anxiety, says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul think tank. “What is the final outcome? The concern is that so far we have nothing; we have literally nothing,” says Ms. Nemat. “We are getting closer to what? To peace? No. To withdrawal of the troops, which is their [Taliban] demand? No, we don’t see any sign of that, either.”

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Why Taliban peace talks are stuck in neutral

Gray bearded and devout, Mohammad Waqif was the breadwinner. His salary working for the relief agency CARE fed and educated his entire family for 22 years.

And he was the driver. His devotion to his job took him on every road in Afghanistan, where he survived 20 lives’ worth of close calls, his family says.

Yet finally he was the victim, for whom peace in Afghanistan did not come soon enough.

Mr. Waqif was killed by a Taliban suicide car bomb May 8 in Kabul, even as the latest round of U.S.-led peace talks with the Islamist insurgents in Doha, Qatar – which once gave a flash of hope that America’s longest war might soon end – began to flail.

The Taliban attack was carried out amid a broader spring offensive – and an Afghan government and U.S. military counteroffensive – in which all sides are escalating violence even as they talk about peace. How long that dual dynamic can hold without demonstrable progress toward ending the war is not clear.

“When I saw this, I could not control my tears,” says Mr. Waqif’s brother, Abdul Batin Ghafoori, as he describes the blast scene of a dozen burnt cars and collecting the remains of his brother – one of at least nine Afghans killed in the attack in the first days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Taliban target was the heavily fortified office of Counterpart International, an American firm that implements U.S. government-funded civil society programs. The Taliban accused it of “oppression, terror, anti-Islamic ideology” and of promoting Western culture, which it said included men and women intermingling.

But across the street was CARE, which lost three staff members and has been doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan since 1961.

‘War should end’

Choking up at the memory of his brother, Mr. Ghafoori voices the victim’s lament, common here after 40 years of almost continuous conflict: “We can’t say anything; we can’t do anything,” he says.

“The war should end. Peace should come at whatever price,” says Mr. Ghafoori. As his brother’s name is added to the seemingly endless list of Afghanistan’s war dead, he notes the irony that, whether war lasts 20 years or 40, “in the end you will sit and talk, make a solution, and make peace.”

Yet every aspect of that peace remains elusive, and the sixth round of talks between Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, and the Taliban appeared to end prematurely after the Taliban claimed the Kabul attack.

 

Rahmat Gul/AP
People's tattered belongings litter a mosque after a bomb exploded during Friday prayers on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, May 24. Police said the bomb was concealed in the microphone used to deliver the sermon.

Talks were “getting into the ‘nitty gritty.’ The devil is always in the details,” Ambassador Khalilzad tweeted May 9, announcing the end of the round on the day after the Taliban attack.

“The current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die,” said Mr. Khalilzad. “We need more and faster progress.”

Western officials here say four days were spent discussing what title the Taliban would assume under any deal. And the Taliban refuse to speak to the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, which they describe as a U.S. “puppet,” or to consider a cease-fire.

President Donald Trump has stated his desire to quickly end America’s more than 17-year military role in the Afghan war, and bring home the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops. Months ago, the United States announced it had agreed on a “framework” with the Taliban: withdrawal of U.S. forces in return for the Taliban preventing jihadists operating on Afghan soil.

The Pentagon reportedly floated a plan in January that would have seen half the U.S. troops depart within months, more than rolling back a surge of 3,900 troops that Mr. Trump authorized in mid-2017. The plan called for a full withdrawal within three to five years.

Yet the Taliban attack May 8 showed that “spoilers” abound, says Masood Karokhail, head of The Liaison Office (TLO), a Kabul-based group that facilitates peace and rebuilding efforts.

“The attack on Counterpart, while parallel to the ongoing talks, was not a good sign [and shows] that peace is not as close as we think,” says Mr. Karokhail. “Also for the U.S. – which wanted very fast results – it’s not going to be as fast as they want.”

Mr. Khalilzad shifted the Afghan war narrative from “stalemate” to “peace talks,” he says. But a peace deal may not end the fighting, with hazards including fractures within the Taliban and an estimated two dozen other armed groups in Afghanistan.

‘Talking and fighting’

The Taliban have been fielding a high-level delegation in Qatar, headed by the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

“So a peace deal in Qatar may reduce violence in Afghanistan for a while,” adds Mr. Karokhail. “But the question is, how do we sustain that so it doesn’t jump back because of unemployment, because of ungoverned spaces, because of elements unhappy with the peace deal who feel they’ve been betrayed?”

Both sides have been preparing and engaging in military escalation for months.

“Like the Americans, they [the Taliban] are talking and fighting,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named. “The Americans seem to think they can only fight and talk, and that the Taliban are supposed to sit home and wait for things to happen.”

U.S. troops have been stepping up their house and night raids, and targeting Taliban commanders and fighters, says the official. Yet the Taliban have been measured in their response. They did not target the loya jirga for 3,200 people convened by Mr. Ghani in early May to discuss peace options, which called for an “immediate and permanent cease-fire” to start during Ramadan, and a gradual withdrawal of foreign troops.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington, Feb. 8. Ambassador Khalilzad was met with skepticism on Capitol Hill on May 22 as he briefed lawmakers on peace talks with the Taliban.

Rejecting the loya jirga’s call for a cease-fire, the Taliban said that waging holy war during the month of Ramadan had “even more [holy] rewards.”   

Still, the attack on Counterpart was more “for show,” with a big explosion but limited casualties, says the Western official. “They did not go for the big civilian casualty count,” says the official. “They didn’t go from room to room shooting people in the head [as] we’ve seen before.”

“At the same time, the government needs to be under pressure, too, because Ghani’s been known to drag out any progress on peace,” says the official. “So the Taliban are saying, ‘Hello, we are still here.’”

One result is that the Taliban are negotiating from a position of strength, as if they are a government-in-waiting.

“The Taliban have a very consistent narrative: ‘We are stronger than the government,’” says a senior Afghan government official who asked not to be further identified. “They have a lot of rational arguments behind it ... because they are out in the field, they have been killing Americans, and [killing] hundreds of Afghan National Army, and they have access to more area than before.”

Yet on the side of the government, which has been marred by widespread corruption, and by Mr. Ghani’s own admission that 45,000 Afghan security force members have lost their lives since his tenure began in 2014, there is little to engender hope or exemplify strength.

“Right now we have nothing, actually,” says the senior official. “Do we have political stability? No. Do we have security? No. Do we have investments coming? No. Do we have zero civilian casualties? No, we have tons.”

Commitment to peace?

Yet even if the Taliban exude strength at the negotiating table, some Afghans question the Taliban readiness for peace.

They also question the Taliban’s claim to have evolved, in which they say they now embrace women’s education and inclusive politics, in stark contrast to how they ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF today, for example, reported that attacks on schools rose to 192 in 2018, nearly a threefold increase over 2017. 

“I hear people say the Taliban have changed,” says Abubakar Gharzai, who works in broadcasting in Kabul. “What did you see to make that assumption? It’s like those rumors that spread in the Middle Ages, that a woman is a witch.”

“I can’t believe people ... believe what the Taliban are saying with their mouth, while they are blowing people into pieces,” says Mr. Gharzai.

Simultaneously talking peace and fighting to maximize leverage is understandable, but also a source of anxiety when so little is known about the state of the peace talks – or even their aim, says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul.

“What is the final outcome? The concern is that so far we have nothing; we have literally nothing,” says Ms. Nemat. “We are getting closer to what? To peace? No. To withdrawal of the troops, which is their [Taliban] demand? No, we don’t see any sign of that, either.”

“The whole vagueness of the situation is playing into the hands of forces – here I would generalize it – who have an interest to keep up the war,” says Ms. Nemat. “Because otherwise why, in the midst of making progress, according to themselves, why suddenly is this blow happening? [Why the] escalation of attacks against the Taliban, and escalation of Taliban reaction?

“No side is de-escalating,” she says. “Both sides are at high speed.”

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A deeper look

3. Game of 535 thrones: Reflections from working under the rotunda

Congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer is moving on to a new beat as the Monitor’s West Coast bureau chief. Here she shares some of what she learned during her more than five years on Capitol Hill. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Monitor congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer (center on l.) joins other journalists interviewing Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt at the Capitol on March 26 in Washington.

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I have loved reporting on Congress, even in the most polarized atmosphere in my nearly four decades in journalism. Every vote is an opportunity to speak directly with lawmakers. It’s a daily attempt to explain the 535 people and forces shaping policy and politics.

I once asked former congressional correspondent Gail Russell Chaddock for advice on maintaining evenhandedness. Get to know the lawmakers’ back stories, she said. What made them who they are? When you understand that, you don’t judge, you just explain.

When you know, for instance, that as a 2-year-old battling polio, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was confined to his bed and under a strict therapy regimen for two long years, you understand his patient plotting as an adult. When you know that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had five babies in six years, and sometimes didn’t even have time to wash her face during the day, you understand why she’s so confident she can corral her fractious caucus.

While it’s time for me to be moving on, Hill reporters consider their beat the best in Washington, and I have to agree.

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Game of 535 thrones: Reflections from working under the rotunda

When I tell people that I cover Congress, I get looks ranging from horror to sympathy.

“How can you stand it?” they typically ask.

But it’s not a matter of having to stand anything. I have loved reporting on Congress, even in the most polarized atmosphere in my nearly four decades in journalism. Nowhere else in Washington does a reporter have such access to power – certainly not at the White House, where I covered the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

On the Hill, every vote in the House or Senate chamber is an opportunity to speak directly with lawmakers. They stream out of their offices like ants from a colony with an infinite number of comments and criticisms for newsgatherers. Almost guaranteed, Rep. Mark Meadows, the hard-line conservative Republican from North Carolina who talks frequently with President Donald Trump, can be found lingering in the chandeliered Speaker’s Lobby or a nearby corridor during or after a House vote. He’s not one to let a media opportunity go to waste. Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California and other leaders hold weekly press conferences, and if you time it right, you can exit when she does, finding yourself side by side for an exclusive comment instead of trailing at the back of the pack, hopelessly trying to keep up with the House speaker in stilettos.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The fresco on the dome of the U.S. Capitol rotunda, which features George Washington, is a paean to the nation’s founding ideals.

The “how can you stand it” question, depending on who is asking, also implies that I must hate having to be around those awful Republicans or Democrats. But it’s not a question of liking or disliking a politician or political party. I may be within inches of a senator’s face talking privately, or in a crushing scrum with other reporters, but it’s not personal. Rather, it’s a daily search to explain the people and forces shaping policy and politics. I liken it to eighth-grade science class (sometimes more eighth grade than science), when I looked through a microscope at various squiggly bits and tried to identify the mitochondria, “the powerhouse of the cell” that makes everything happen.

You also can’t top the Capitol as a workplace. Up on the third floor in the Senate press gallery, my cubicle barely fits a laptop and tiny flat-screen TV, let alone take-out meals from the basement cafe on taco-salad Thursdays. But we work under a glass ceiling decorated with dancing cherubs, just steps from a spectacular view of the U.S. Supreme Court. Walking alone through the silent rotunda after the tourists have left offers a hallowed reminder of the founding of America and its unique system of checks and balances – a system that acts as the guardian of the Republic, despite its attendant frustrations. Look up to the frescoed, soaring dome, and you will find George Washington depicted as a near deity. 

Hill reporters consider their beat the best in Washington, and I have to agree. But I had a hard time understanding why until I became the Monitor’s congressional correspondent more than five years ago. Indeed, this was the one assignment that I did not want.

Karen Norris/Staff

In mid-October 2013, the Monitor’s D.C. bureau was in temporary digs at the National Press Club, and I was editor of the opinion page. I was launching a new guest commentary series called “Common Ground, Common Good.” Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama were locked in a stalemate over the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – and the budget, resulting in a partial government shutdown that had been grinding on since Oct. 1. Common ground seemed a distant shore.

The shutdown occurred in the context of epic partisan battles over taxes, spending, and the national debt, with memories of the previous winter’s “fiscal cliff” and threats of debt default still fresh. No wonder that Americans, according to one survey, viewed cockroaches, root canals, and traffic jams more favorably than Congress. I was right there with them.

But on day 16, I thought the lassitude might be lifting. I looked up from my desk at the television and walked over to the big screen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader at the time, was speaking on the Senate floor. The Democrat from Nevada announced that he and the Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had reached a deal to end the stalemate.

“Senator McConnell and I have sat in very, very serious discussions the last few days,” said a somber Mr. Reid in his trademark wispy voice. “We’re going to do everything we can to change the atmosphere in the Senate and accomplish things that need to be done for our country.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Monitor congressional reporter Francine Kiefer walks to her car after a day of reporting at the Capitol.

Could they be serious? Suddenly the Monitor’s vacant Congress slot, which had gone unfilled for some time, came to mind. Perhaps the relationship between Republicans and Democrats had reached its nadir. Like the reunification of Germany – which I had covered as the Monitor’s Germany bureau chief – maybe the two parties could move from Cold War to cooperation. Surely, things couldn’t get any worse.

I threw my hat in the ring and shortly thereafter was on the Hill – just in time to witness a day of high, partisan drama. Wow! Mr. Reid was on the Senate floor taking one of the ultimate confrontational actions, triggering the “nuclear option.”

On Nov. 21, Democrats decided unilaterally to change the Senate rules so that Republicans, who were then in the minority, could no longer filibuster, or block, President Obama’s federal judges and other executive nominees. It was a blow against minority-party rights in the name of expediency. From that point on, it would take only a simple majority vote for confirmation of nominees. The only exception would be for Supreme Court justices.

How wrong I had been about the possibility of political détente. Republicans were furious at Mr. Reid’s maneuver – but they would have their revenge.

Capitol Hill is like a university campus, a sprawling network of buildings complete with underground tunnels and even its own subway system. It’s easy to get lost, and freshman lawmakers often do. The same goes for new reporters, which is why I was grateful for tips and tours from previous Monitor congressional correspondents when I started.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Monitor congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer (in green) and other journalists interview Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y..

Former reporter David Grant showed me the quickest way from the Senate to the House. It is to follow the third-floor corridor closest to the Supreme Court and Library of Congress – otherwise it’s a tourist traffic jam through the Capitol rotunda and Statuary Hall on the second floor. Gail Russell Chaddock warned me to hold the banister on the marble staircase or I might slip dashing down to catch a senator after a floor speech.

But what I valued most was her advice on how to keep your own opinions in check.

A reporter’s job description is to be fair and balanced. I’m particularly sensitive to this in the “fake news” era, and also because the Monitor was founded in 1908 in part to combat the sensationalist yellow journalism of the times.

As a White House reporter, I could regulate my fairness meter fairly easily. After all, it’s essentially one person you’re covering. But Congress is 535 people. Key members and groups develop reputations for being good or bad, talkative or tentative. They become caricatures in the public mind.

I asked Gail how she maintained evenhandedness and her answer became the key to my coverage: Get to know the lawmakers’ back story; learn the formative events and people in their lives. What made them who they are? When you understand that, you don’t judge, you just explain.

When you know, for instance, that as a 2-year-old battling polio, Mr. McConnell was confined to his bed and under a strict therapy regimen for two long years, you understand his patient plotting as an adult. Indeed, his memoir is titled “The Long Game.”

When you know that Mr. Reid grew up in dire poverty in Searchlight, Nevada, his alcoholic father committing suicide and his mother doing laundry for nearby brothels, you understand why the former boxer was such a scrapper as a politician – and big supporter of Obamacare. He had saved up at one point to buy his mother false teeth.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ms. Kiefer eats lunch while working in her tiny cubicle in the Senate press gallery.

When you know that Ms. Pelosi had five babies in six years, and sometimes didn’t even have time to wash her face during the day, you understand why she’s so confident she can corral her fractious caucus.

The fairness question has become even more of an issue in the Trump presidency, and I hear about it from readers or when I’m out on the campaign trail talking with voters. They don’t trust the media; they sometimes don’t want to talk to me.

That’s exactly what I encountered as the 2016 presidential campaign intensified. I was reporting on a tight Senate race in North Carolina, a swing state, just before Labor Day and had met up with the Democratic challenger at a bookstore meet-and-greet. But I had no success in shadowing the Republican incumbent, who didn’t plan to campaign until closer to Election Day.

Karen Norris/Staff

I checked the state GOP website for events where I might likely find Republican voters. Perfect. The Republican Women of Cary & Southwestern Wake – in suburban Raleigh – were holding their monthly luncheon at the Prestonwood Country Club. Suburban women voters can decide elections. Of course, these women would be reliable GOP supporters, not swing voters, but talking with them would give me insight into the suburban mindset.

That is, if they would talk with me. Although I had permission to attend the event, several complained about the biased media when I approached them in the buffet line. I had to work at building trust, telling them about the Monitor’s reputation for fairness, about my interest in observing and understanding, not opining. I promised to send each person I talked with a link to my story, and they could judge for themselves.

Trust established, their views flowed freely, and I ended up writing a story entirely about the luncheon and the women’s attitudes toward Mr. Trump. It was at this luncheon, overlooking a vast, 54-hole championship golf course, that I got my first clue that the TV celebrity and real estate tycoon could actually win. Pundits weren’t predicting it, but if they had lunched with this group, they might have thought otherwise.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An elevator marked ‘senators only’ operates on one side of the Capitol. Parts of the building are off-limits to the press and visitors.

As the women sipped their iced tea, one of them, Angela Hawkins, announced that she had Trump signs available to distribute – but with a caveat. Ms. Hawkins explained that voters may not want to display them. Many had told her privately that they were too embarrassed to put the signs on their lawns. But they had reassured her that once inside the privacy of the voting booth, they would mark their ballots for Mr. Trump.

And they did. It was close, but Mr. Trump won North Carolina by 3.6 percentage points.

Compromise is the key to making Congress work. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take the word of the Founding Fathers, who set up a system that can’t function without it. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, take a ride in the black Lincoln SUV of Don Landoll in Marysville, Kansas (pop. 3,271).

Mr. Landoll’s namesake company manufactures farm equipment in a flat expanse just south of the Nebraska border. His small town has an interesting history – first stop on the Pony Express and a hub for the Union Pacific railroad. In the fall of 2015, I found myself on a driving tour of Marysville with Mr. Landoll at the wheel; his congressman, Tim Huelskamp, riding shotgun; and the mayor of Marysville and me in the back seat.

I had traveled to this enormous congressional district – the “big First” – to tag along with Republican Representative Huelskamp and learn why his supporters liked him so much. Mr. Huelskamp, a staunch tea partyer, had firmly backed the federal government shutdown two years before. His unbending stance, which some described as obstreperous, had gotten him kicked off the Agriculture Committee by the leadership of his own party. It was the first time in more than a century that Kansas had been without someone on the all-important ag committee.

Mr. Huelskamp wore his ideological rigidity like a badge of honor, and his supporters loved him for it. But that day in Mr. Landoll’s SUV quickly showed the downside of being an uncompromising congressman. As we drove from Marysville’s updated municipal airport to the new hospital and the recently constructed highway overpass and airport access road, Mr. Landoll repeated a similar line – that a lot of federal dollars had gone into every one of those projects.

He didn’t directly say it, but the message from this businessman was clear: Lawmakers such as Mr. Huelskamp may rail against government, but the fact is that rural America depends on it. Shutting down the government dries up dollars and fuels uncertainty. That’s not good for business, nor is a vote against the farm bill from someone who represents a big farm state.

In 2016, the tea party congressman was defeated in the primary by a more pragmatic Republican. It was a painful rebuke to Mr. Huelskamp, but a reminder that voters – most voters, anyway – want Washington to work, and that requires give-and-take.

Covering Congress requires strategizing, from knowing where to physically place yourself to making conscious wardrobe choices. For instance, on press conference Tuesdays, I don my Kelly-green blazer and pink reading glasses. They stand out in a sea of mostly dark outfits, and I almost always get called on if I have a question.

It also helps to learn the habits of lawmakers – that Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas likes to get his exercise and count his daily steps (which makes him a good target for a “walk-and-talk” interview), or that on controversial news days, senators often exit the chamber via an obscure staircase to avoid most of the media.

Elections mean new lawmakers and new strategies. Now that Democrats control the House, a good place to intercept new members is outside the women’s restroom just steps from the House floor – since this is the largest freshman class of women ever elected.

But I wasn’t prepared for the mayhem that ensued when Mr. Trump became president. News organizations flooded the Hill with reinforcements. Reporters crowded the halls and accosted and surrounded lawmakers as they squeezed through doorways or down staircases.

Suddenly, stanchions and ropes appeared to cordon off the media. Those quiet opportunities to chat privately with a member became rare, while lawmakers and their staffs struggled to keep pace with the almost daily – and sometimes hourly – controversies surrounding the president.

Things have quieted down somewhat. The unpredictability from @realDonaldTrump has become a predictable fact of life for politicians and the media. In the Capitol, the focus is now on the House, where newly empowered Democrats are exercising their “check” on the executive. Meanwhile, the presidential campaign is well underway.

Karen Norris/Staff

Time for me to be moving on.

In 1932, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis popularized the idea that states are “laboratories of democracy” – test tubes for “social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

As polarization and gridlock grip Washington, that’s especially true today. Members of Congress excel at blocking the opposing party or the executive branch, even as they seem to be losing the art of legislating. With some variations – including the first two years under President Trump, which saw the most laws enacted in a decade – the overall trend line of lawmaking is down over the past 30 years, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Measuring productivity according to laws enacted is, of course, far from a perfect way to judge the effectiveness of America’s representatives and their presidents. Consider that nearly a third of the legislative output in the last Congress was ceremonial laws, such as renaming post offices and courthouses, says Pew. And many Americans share the view that the less Congress does, the better.

Yet gridlock has left serious national challenges unaddressed, and that’s where the states come in. Across the country, they’re stepping into the void left by Washington in their own way – on guns, marijuana, health care, the wage gap, climate, infrastructure, immigration.

Now the Monitor is sending me to the biggest state of them all, California, the world’s fifth-largest economy. Its newly elected Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, is determined to make the Golden State the political inverse of the Trump presidency, on issues from health care to immigration. For me, it’s a homecoming of sorts. Although I’ll be based in the Los Angeles area, I once worked in Silicon Valley as the national editor for The San Jose Mercury News.

Just as Justice Brandeis’ “laboratories” analogy has become something of a cliché, so too has the idea that what starts in California eventually rolls east. Former Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, at the University of Southern California, though, believes the truism still holds up. “Through many ideological iterations, from Earl Warren, to Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan, to Jerry Brown, to Dianne Feinstein, California has set the pace for the country,” he says.

In the most polarized atmosphere in decades, I’m looking forward to finding out whether California – and the West Coast more broadly – will spread its influence. Or whether it is becoming an island unto itself. I also want to see what Washington looks like at a distance, from the land of tanned torsos and top-down cars.

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4. ‘Chernobyl’ TV miniseries: reviews from ground zero

Those who have lived through part of history can offer valuable insights years later. They can also reveal the range of perspectives on a subject, as shown by reactions to this TV dramatization of the 1986 nuclear disaster.

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Vladimir Slivyak well remembers the anxiety and fear where he lived in the Soviet Union in the days following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. “Our government definitely knew what was going on, and they just went on TV and lied about it,” he says.

Mr. Slivyak is now an anti-nuclear activist and co-chair of Ecodefense, an environmental group. And he’s definitely taken notice of “Chernobyl,” the new U.S.-British dramatic miniseries airing on HBO. “This is pretty good, and we are getting a lot of positive feedback about it,” he says.

The program is available in Russia and Ukraine only to the relatively small audience that subscribes to pay-for-view streaming services, as well as an unknown number who access pirated versions. But the miniseries has been disproportionately noticed and reviewed by mainstream media in both countries.

Some experts have been more critical than Mr. Slivyak. Although the program is “wonderfully shot, professionally edited, and the special effects are great,” says Oleg Voinov, a documentary producer who made a highly acclaimed Russian film about the Chernobyl disaster, “it doesn’t come close to reflecting reality.”

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‘Chernobyl’ TV miniseries: reviews from ground zero

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a global wake-up call, a human tragedy that is still unfolding. It was also a deathblow to the credibility of the Soviet Union, which had proudly developed the reactor’s deeply flawed technology and whose bureaucracy tried to deceive the world for several days about the accident’s scope and consequences.

This is a story with universal import. But in the post-Soviet states of Russia and Ukraine – the latter being where the disaster occurred – it’s also personal. Many people in the region vividly remember those strange and terrifying days, and a dwindling cohort of Chernobyl veterans still wrestles with the lingering effects of radiation.

So one might expect Russians and Ukrainians to watch the new U.S.-British dramatic miniseries “Chernobyl” with the sort of derisive skepticism that an American audience might have for a Russian-made film about, say, Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, with the five-part series well underway, “Chernobyl” has its critics in the region where the catastrophe happened, and some people in particular have taken issue with the program’s authenticity. But in a bit of a surprise, other responses appear to be favorable.

“This is pretty good, and we are getting a lot of positive feedback about it,” says Vladimir Slivyak, a veteran Russian anti-nuclear activist and co-chair of Ecodefense, an environmental group. “Our government definitely knew what was going on, and they just went on TV and lied about it. I think that important aspect of those events is pretty well depicted in this miniseries.”

Although the HBO program is available in Russia and Ukraine only to the relatively small audience that subscribes to pay-for-view streaming services, as well as an unknown number who access pirated versions, it has been disproportionately noticed and reviewed by mainstream media in both countries.

Everybody seems to agree that the miniseries goes overboard with its characters, depicting Soviet officials and plant management as too evil and conniving. And the protagonists – especially the scientists who fought to reveal the truth about the accident – are portrayed as just a little too all-knowing and heroic.

Oleg Voinov is a documentary producer who made a highly acclaimed Russian film about the Chernobyl disaster. The new production is “wonderfully shot, professionally edited, and the special effects are great. But it doesn’t come close to reflecting reality,” he says. “I know it’s hard to combine dramatic script with documentary narrative, but still, it’s not what it should be. A lot of the facts presented are just not true.”

On location

Key scenes for the miniseries were shot in the control room at Ignalia, Chernobyl’s Soviet-built sister power station in Lithuania. Filming was also done around Ukraine and even at the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power station itself.

Russian authorities have offered no comment on the program, but Mr. Slivyak, for one, says it will not be liked by an establishment that remains heavily invested in nuclear energy and that still operates several Chernobyl-type reactors.

What happened 33 years ago had monumental consequences for the Soviet Union, according to Vitaly Tolstikov, a historian of nuclear power at Chelyabinsk State Institute of Culture in the Russian Urals. “As a result of the disaster, people started to doubt the ability of the state to manage things. They lost faith, and this may be considered one of the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse,” he says.

Some consequences of the accident are still being counted today, Mr. Tolstikov notes: “The long-term health costs are still not calculated. Whole districts of Ukraine and Belarus ceased to be economically active.” Belarus, another post-Soviet state, is where most of Chernobyl’s radiation came down.

It is because of the ongoing effects that some people want nothing to do with the new dramatization. Take Valentina Bagryantseva, an activist in the Rostov branch of the Chernobyl Union, which represents surviving members of the nearly half a million emergency workers, known as “liquidators,” who came from all over the Soviet Union to contain the Chernobyl accident. Her husband, an officer at the Chernobyl plant in the months following the disaster, has been hospitalized with what are believed to be long-term results of radiation exposure.

“We know about this film, but nobody wants to talk about it,” she says. “People who were there don’t want to relive it. Every day I work with the survivors, and often see them off on the last journey. It’s too painful to discuss.”

A public opinion survey done by the state-funded VTsIOM agency in 2016 found that attitudes toward the nuclear power industry have changed dramatically since the years following the Chernobyl accident. In 1990, polls showed that 56% of Russians were opposed to further development of nuclear power, while just 14% supported it. A quarter century later, 58% approved of atomic energy, while 28% had a negative opinion.

“There was a generation of Soviet people who witnessed Chernobyl, survived its consequences, and felt its lessons,” says Mikhail Chernysh, deputy director of scientific studies at the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “But that generation is fading and the present generation, even if they know about it, don’t feel it as traumatic memory.”

He adds, “A lot of kids today probably know about it only because there is a popular video game called Chernobyl, where you go to a virtual Chernobyl and battle virtual monsters. Who knows what the next generation will know or think about it?”

Mr. Slivyak, the Russian anti-nuclear activist, concurs. “People think that Chernobyl happened in a different country, long ago,” he says.

Still under its shadow

Mr. Slivyak’s family comes from southern Belarus, which is still under Chernobyl’s shadow. He says he well remembers the public mood of anxiety and fear during those tense days when there was no official information about the accident, even as mass evacuations were underway in the communities near the stricken reactor.

“The first announcement was made on TV several days later, and it gave no real details. I recall it just spoke about a minor accident, nothing to worry about,” he says.

The activist is among those who, contrary to others, have complimented “Chernobyl” for what they see as the use of sharp, horrifying detail to depict the accident. The miniseries is “close to real events as far as that is possible,” Mr. Slivyak says. “It differs favorably from a lot of Western productions purporting to be set in the Soviet Union or Russia, that make so many blunders with the Russian language, background details, or the texture of events that you just can’t bear to watch.”

As a voice against the nuclear industry, he sees “Chernobyl” as part of a significant conversation in the present day.

“This series is a timely reminder about the dangers of atomic power, especially now that it’s been promoted as a solution to climate change,” he says. “No one has ever built a completely safe nuclear reactor, and so the potential for all that to happen again is still very much with us.”

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. How to help Mexican migrants? Publish news they can use.

When Patricia Mercado Sánchez left an elite job to found a news site for Mexican migrants, she helped build much-needed bridges between Mexicans on both sides of the border, all while rebuilding trust in journalism. 

Ginnette Riquelme/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Patricia Mercado Sánchez poses for a photograph in Mexico City on May 9. Ms. Mercado Sánchez is founder and director of Conexión Migrante, which provides services and information to Mexicans living in the United States and their families in Mexico.

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Patricia Mercado Sánchez walked away from a nearly decadelong position as editor-in-chief of Mexico’s leading financial newspaper to found a startup media company for Mexican migrants. Her unexpected move was prompted by a journalism fellowship in Northern California, an experience that turned her image of Mexican immigrants on its head. 

Conexión Migrante launched on the U.S. Election Day of 2016. Migrants and their families submit specific questions – like how Mexican parents of a migrant in the U.S. can get paperwork to visit their child, or how to get a U.S.-born baby his Mexican citizenship – via Facebook or the organization’s hotline. The questions are answered on Conexión Migrante’s website, which has become a one-stop resource for millions of people with ties in both countries. For migrants who may not be literate, who can’t take time off to visit a consulate, or who might be afraid to go to authorities, fearing deportation, this service is critical. 

“I worked [in financial journalism] for 15 years,” says Ms. Mercado Sánchez. “But I think this kind of journalism is more real. I’m closer to the people and the needs of people.” 

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How to help Mexican migrants? Publish news they can use.

When Patricia Mercado Sánchez was growing up in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, from which many migrants to the United States hail, she was taught not to think much about those leaving for El Norte

“The saying went, if you left Mexico you gave up your seat,” she says, explaining that it was seen as a rejection of home. 

Today, Mexican migrants are what keep Ms. Mercado Sánchez up at night – and fill her days as the founder of a startup “service news” media company called Conexión Migrante

Her home on a quiet block in a lush Mexico City neighborhood is buzzing with activity on a recent Friday afternoon. In the living room, visitors discuss web design and strategy. In the dining room, interns tap away at their laptops. At one point a shirtless 7-year-old wanders through the action, holding up a small plastic truck for all to admire.

This is ground zero for Ms. Mercado Sánchez’s nearly 3-year-old project that publishes stories based on specific inquiries sent by migrants in the U.S. or their families in Mexico, via Facebook or the organization’s hotline. The questions – like how a Mexican parent of a migrant in the U.S. can get paperwork to visit their child, or how to get a U.S.-born baby his Mexican citizenship – are answered on Conexión Migrante’s website, which has become a one-stop resource for millions of people with ties in both Mexico and the U.S.

“We realized Mexican migrants in the U.S. didn’t need general information like any old news site; they needed very, very specific information,” Ms. Mercado Sánchez says. 

She and her team of 10 investigate the questions and write straightforward articles and man a hotline to answer questions. For many, their work is critical: answering practical questions for migrants who may not be literate, who can’t take time off to visit a consulate, or who might be afraid to go to authorities, fearing deportation. 

Ginnette Riquelme/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Patricia Mercado Sánchez, founder and director of Conexión Migrante, talks to her team in Mexico City on May 9.

Unwelcome everywhere 

Ms. Mercado Sánchez’s idea for this project came to her in 2007, during a journalism fellowship in northern California. After almost a decade as the editor-in-chief of Mexico’s leading financial newspaper, El Economista, her experience in the U.S. turned her image of Mexican migrants on its head.

There, she became active with Mexican immigrant communities in San Jose and studied migration to the U.S. at Stanford University. 

One conversation with a group of Mexicans in the U.S. triggered a flashback to her childhood. Her cousin, born in Los Angeles, once visited family in Zacatecas. She and her six siblings made fun of his Spanish, telling him he wasn’t Mexican. He cried while they laughed. Years later, she realized what was behind his tears: His family was telling him he wasn’t Mexican, while his peers in the U.S. told him he wasn’t American. 

Mexican migrants in the U.S. “aren’t accepted by either country,” she says. Flash forward to the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the need for connection and understanding took on new importance.

“I felt like it was now or never,” she says of launching Conexión Migrante, which went live on Election Day. 

Today, Conexión Migrante publishes three to five original stories per day. One article on birth certificates garnered more than 1 million page views within days of being posted, she recalls. 

The team receives between 300 and 500 phone calls a month and nearly double that in Facebook messages.  

“I worked [in financial journalism] for 15 years,” says Ms. Mercado Sánchez. “But I think this kind of journalism is more real. I’m closer to the people and the needs of people.” 

Getting answers 

In 2017, Lucia Any Salazar, based in Ecuador, contacted the group to get answers about her brother who had gone missing after entering the U.S. Ms. Salazar was convinced he was one of the 10 migrants who suffocated in a tractor-trailer found in a Walmart parking lot that summer.   

Ms. Mercado Sánchez wrote about the family’s story. Four months later, she received a call from someone at the Ecuadorian consulate looking for Ms. Salazar; her brother was the last body identified in the truck.

“I didn’t know where to start looking when Flabio went missing. Government offices in Quito said they couldn’t help me,” Ms. Salazar recalls. “[Conexión Migrante] published photos and information and knew how important their help could be to a family like mine,” she says.

But not everyone is happy with the work Ms. Mercado Sánchez is doing. “The [negative] comments on our networks are few, but they tend to come from Mexican Americans in the U.S.,” she says, explaining that migrants who are in the U.S. legally tend not to support undocumented migrants. 

That dynamic has inspired a recent grant-based initiative at Conexión Migrante to create more connections between established legal migrants in the U.S., and more recent Mexican arrivals. 

Rebuilding trust  

Ms. Mercado Sánchez stands in her dining room doorway in front of her young team on a rainy afternoon. These biweekly gatherings are where calls or messages are discussed and assigned. They are also an opportunity to provide professional development to aspiring journalists. 

“There were a lot of typos in our posts yesterday,” she says. “We can’t have a single mistake.”

Her staff, nearly all hired through a new government-paid internship program for people under 30, take furious notes. In addition to informing migrants, Ms. Mercado Sánchez is running a reporter training program, providing her team with mentorship and access to online journalism courses.

She is also constantly looking for ways to make Conexión Migrante sustainable. She’s sold web ads to Mexican states with large migrant populations, and was recently part of the inaugural group of grantees from New York University’s Membership Puzzle Project. Those funds will help research potential membership models for the site as well as establish an official call center. 

“There’s a huge trust issue in journalism right now,” says Ariel Zirulnick, the fund director at Membership Puzzle Project. “Patricia is providing a bit of a playbook on how news organizations can … show up for vulnerable communities and empower them in the day to day.”  

Her staff agrees. “The caravans and Trump have made migrants more visible in the news, but they’re still presented as one-dimensional,” says Abel Domínguez, Conexión Migrante’s web editor. 

“This project gives migrants a voice and helps them realize they have rights. Some journalists do what they do to win awards or get clicks. Pati’s not here for that,” he says.

“She’s dedicated to delivering a basic service. And it’s really helping people.”

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the Membership Puzzle Project’s business model.]

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The Monitor's View

European voters do the continental

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Pundits had predicted euroskeptic nationalists would ride to power in last week’s election for the European Parliament. After a decade of deep challenges in Europe, they said, voters would opt for inward-looking domestic interests rather than shared solutions based on common values across the Continent.

That prediction did not happen. While political parties with an anti-EU narrative did mark gains in four of the six most populous countries, the big surprise was an upsurge for smaller parties reflecting issues such as climate change, migration, trade, and corruption that cross borders – and require cross-border compromises.

Voter turnout for the parliamentary contest was the highest in a quarter century, reversing a 40-year decline. This reflects a new intensity of interest in Europe itself.

The EU was set up to ensure prosperity but also to shave off the kind of nationalist impulses that had led to two wars in the 20th century. Its politics may be complex, aloof, and prone to setbacks, such as in the case of Brexit. But its transnational project endures. Some values and solutions are just too universal.

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European voters do the continental

Nothing unites Europe more as a universal culture than Eurovision, an annual singing competition in May between single entrants from each nation. This year, the singer from Britain came in last. That triggered angry demands from many in the U.K. – home of the Beatles, Elton John, and Adele – to withdraw from the contest forever.

Alas, such nationalist self-isolation is unlikely to happen. Good songwriting and singing are too borderless in their appeal. And Eurovision has long been popular on TV in Britain.

This tale is helpful in understanding another Europewide event in May, the election last week of a new European Parliament. Pundits had predicted euroskeptic nationalists would ride to power in a legislature that represents more than a half-billion people in the 28-nation European Union. After a decade of deep challenges in Europe, they said, voters would opt for inward-looking domestic interests rather than shared solutions based on common values across the Continent.

That prediction did not happen. While political parties with an anti-EU narrative did mark gains in four of the six most populous countries, the big surprise was an upsurge for smaller parties reflecting issues such as climate change, migration, trade, and corruption that cross borders – and require cross-border compromises. Meanwhile, Europe’s traditional parties, which reflect mainly left-right differences over each nation’s economy, did not do well.

“This was in fact the first European Parliament election with genuinely European themes,” concluded Princeton University professor Harold James.

Voter turnout for the parliamentary contest was the highest in a quarter century, reversing a 40-year decline. This reflects a new intensity of interest in Europe itself.

Even the biggest winner among nationalist parties, Italy’s Five Star Movement, fashions itself as a reformer of the EU. Party leader Matteo Salvini says he wants other European countries to take on more of the burden of dealing with migrants crossing from Africa. He promises to change EU rules on fiscal austerity in member states that overspend.

The EU was set up to ensure prosperity but also to shave off the kind of nationalist impulses that had led to two wars in the 20th century. Its politics may be complex, aloof, and prone to setbacks, such as in the case of Brexit. But its transnational project endures. Some values and solutions – like a good song – are just too universal.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Healed on a field trip

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For today’s contributor, chaperoning a school trip became an occasion to not only learn about her nation’s capital, but experience God’s love and care in a tangible way.

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Healed on a field trip

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As one of several chaperones on a recent field trip to Washington, D.C., with my grandson’s middle school, I expected each day would be filled with activity as we wound through the sights and sounds of our nation’s political heartbeat. In keeping with my usual morning routine, I started each day turning to God in prayer. During this time inspiration flowed that gave me confidence, joy, strength, and patience. These prayers were my anchor each day as I interacted with the whole group of 60 8th-graders.

I was especially inspired by the many accounts in the Bible of people who journeyed to their destination while trusting God to keep them safe. For instance, the book of Exodus recounts the children of Israel leaving Egypt for the Promised Land with Moses. The deeper story is how their growing trust in God brought help, such as food, when they needed it. These stories of generations long ago still served as precious examples for me. I thought of the trip as an opportunity to witness God’s goodness and love for all His children.

But by the fourth day of the trip, the demands of keeping the students in my group together, walking countless miles, standing for lengthy periods during exhibits and tours, and navigating around the many others visiting D.C. at the same time had taken a toll. There came a point when I realized I was in a lot of pain while walking.

I immediately thought of something “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, says in relation to physical exertion: “If it were not for what the human mind says of the body, the body, like the inanimate wheel, would never be weary. The consciousness of Truth rests us more than hours of repose in unconsciousness” (p. 218).

I started thinking about the wheels on the bus that drove us into the city. They weren’t tired, yet their journey was far more vigorous than ours! This helped me see how important our thinking is. I strove to be more conscious of divine Truth, which is another name for God, instead of dwelling on how weary I felt.

The truth, I realized, was that God can’t produce pain any more than He can cause fatigue. As God’s sons and daughters, we are made in His flawless, harmonious, spiritual likeness.

The more I was willing to realize that God is the very source of strength and buoyancy, the more I saw that I couldn’t lack the vitality and freedom needed each day. From a spiritual perspective, the fullness of God’s day belongs entirely to God and exists for His glory – not mine, not anyone else’s. Our purpose is to express God’s many qualities, such as love and joy, in all we do.

An honest desire to put God first turned things around quickly for me. Within minutes I was able to move about without pain or discomfort. For the rest of the trip, as day followed day, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. Each day was full and brimming over with great activities, which I enjoyed without pain or fatigue, and the students stayed with their groups and listened thoughtfully during tours. I felt such a clear sense of “God’s got this!” – of being divinely cared for along the way.

There is a hymn I love that says,

As the stars in order going,
All harmonious, He doth move;
Heavenly calm and comfort showing,
Comes the healing word of Love.
(J. O. Wallin, “Christian Science Hymnal,” No. 263)

We are never without help. As the Bible notes, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1). God is also omnipotent – all-powerful. Through prayer we can expand our view of the order and harmony of God’s spiritual creation, and as we do we find that we have opportunities every day to see evidence of God’s presence and power.

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Viewfinder

After the storm

John Minchillo/AP
After the roof was torn off in a severe storm, residents sorted through apartments May 28 at the Westbrooke Village Apartments in Trotwood, Ohio. A cluster of more than 50 tornadoes hit eight states overnight.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 29th, 2019 )

That’s it for today. Check in tomorrow when we look at the cutest dog race you can imagine. 

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May 28, 2019
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