It’s a languid October afternoon in Los Angeles, sunny and clear.
Chris Evans, back home after a grueling production schedule, relaxes into his couch, feet propped up on the coffee table. Over the past year and a half, the actor has tried on one identity after another: the shaggy-haired Israeli spy, the clean-shaven playboy, and, in his Broadway debut, the Manhattan beat cop with a Burt Reynolds ’stache. Now, though, he just looks like Chris Evans—trim beard, monster biceps, angelic complexion. So it’s a surprise when he brings up the nightmares. “I sleep, like, an hour a night,” he says. “I’m in a panic.”
The panic began, as panics so often do these days, in Washington, DC. Early last February, Evans visited the capital to pitch lawmakers on a new civic engagement project. He arrived just hours before Donald Trump would deliver his second State of the Union address, in which he called on Congress to “bridge old divisions” and “reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution.” (Earlier, at a private luncheon, Trump referred to Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, as a “nasty son of a bitch.”) Evans is no fan of the president, whom he has publicly called a “moron,” a “dunce,” and a “meatball.” But bridging divisions? Putting an end to the American body politic’s clammy night sweats? These were goals he could get behind.
Evans’ pitch went like this: He would build an online platform organized into tidy sections—immigration, health care, education, the economy—each with a series of questions of the kind most Americans can’t succinctly answer themselves. What, exactly, is a tariff? What’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid? Evans would invite politicians to answer the questions in minute-long videos. He’d conduct the interviews himself, but always from behind the camera. The site would be a place to hear both sides of an issue, to get the TL;DR on WTF was happening in American politics. He called it A Starting Point—a name that sometimes rang with enthusiasm and sometimes sounded like an apology.
Evans doesn’t have much in the way of political capital, but he does have a reputation, perhaps unearned, for patriotism. Since 2011 he has appeared in no fewer than 10 Marvel movies as Captain America, the Nazi-slaying, homeland-defending superhero wrapped in bipartisan red, white, and blue. It’s hard to imagine a better time to cash in on the character’s symbolism. Partisan animosity is at an all-time high; a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found that 35 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats would oppose their child marrying someone from the other party. (In 1960, only 4 percent of respondents felt this way.) At the same time, there’s a real crisis of faith in the country’s leaders. According to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Americans believe that members of Congress behave unethically at least some of the time. In Pew’s estimation, that makes them even less trusted than journalists and tech CEOs.
If Evans got it right, he believed, this wouldn’t be some small-fry website. He’d be helping “create informed, responsible, and empathetic citizens.” He would “reduce partisanship and promote respectful discourse.” At the very least, he would “get more people involved” in politics. And if the site stank like a rotten tomato? If Evans became a national laughingstock? Well, that’s where the nightmares began.
It took a special serum and a flash broil in a Vita-Ray chamber to transform Steve Rogers, a sickly kid from Brooklyn, into Captain America. For Chris Evans, savior of American democracy, the origin story is rather less Marvelous.
One day a few years ago, around the time he was filming Avengers: Infinity War, Evans was watching the news. The on-air discussion turned to an unfamiliar acronym—it might have been NAFTA, he says, but he thinks it was DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era immigration policy that granted amnesty to people who had been brought into the United States illegally as children. The Trump administration had just announced plans to phase out DACA, leaving more than half a million young immigrants in the lurch. (The Supreme Court will likely rule this year on whether terminating the program was lawful.)
On the other side of the television, Evans squinted. Wait a minute, he thought. What did that acronym stand for again? And was it a good thing or a bad thing? “It was just something I didn’t understand,” he says.
Evans considers himself a politico. Now 38, he grew up in a civic-minded family, the kind that revels in shouting about the news over dinner. His uncle Michael Capuano served 10 terms in Congress as a Democrat from Massachusetts, beginning right around the time Evans graduated from high school and moved to New York to pursue acting. During the 2016 presidential election, Evans campaigned for Hillary Clinton. In 2017 he became an outspoken critic of Trump—even after he was advised to zip it, for risk of alienating moviegoers. Evans could be a truck driver, Capuano says, and he’d still be involved in politics.
But watching TV that day, Evans was totally lost. He Googled the acronym and tripped over all the warring headlines. Then he tried Wikipedia, but, well, the entry was thousands of words long. “It’s this never-ending thing, and you’re just like, who is going to read 12 pages on something?” Evans says. “I just wanted a basic understanding, a basic history, and a basic grasp on what the two parties think.” He decided to build the resource he wanted for himself.
Evans brought the idea to his close friend Mark Kassen, an actor and director he’d met working on the 2011 indie film Puncture. Kassen signed on and recruited a third partner, Joe Kiani, the founder and CEO of a medical technology company called Masimo. The three met for lobster rolls in Boston. What the country needed, they decided, was a kind of Schoolhouse Rock for adults—a simple, memorable way to learn the ins and outs of civic life. Evans suggested working with politicians directly. Kiani, who had made some friends on Capitol Hill over the years, thought they’d go for it. Each partner agreed to put up money to get the thing off the ground. (They wouldn’t say how much.) They spent some time Googling similar outlets and figuring out where they fit in, Kassen says.
They began by establishing a few rules. First, A Starting Point would give politicians free rein to answer questions as they pleased—no editing, no moderation, no interjections. Second, they would hire fact-checkers to make sure they weren’t promoting misinformation. Third, they would design a site that privileged diversity of opinion, where you could watch a dozen different people answering the same question in different ways. Here, though, imbibing the information would feel more like watching YouTube than skimming Wikipedia—more like entertainment than homework.
The trio mocked up a list of questions to bring to Capitol Hill, starting with the ones that most baffled them. (Is the electoral college still necessary?) They talked, admiringly, about the way presidential debate moderators manage to make their language sound neutral. (Should the questions refer to a “climate crisis” or a “climate situation,” “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented immigrants”?) Then Evans recorded a video on his couch in LA. “Hi, I’m Chris Evans,” he began. “If you’re watching this, I hope you’ll consider contributing to my new civics engagement project called A Starting Point.” He emailed the file to every senator and representative in Congress.
Only a few replied.
In hindsight, Evans realizes, the video “looked so cheap” and either got caught in spam filters or was consciously deleted by congressional staffers. “The majority of people, on both sides of the aisle, dismissed it,” Evans says. Many “thought it was a joke.” Yet there are few doors in American life that a square jaw can’t open, particularly when it belongs to a man with many millions of dollars and nearly as many swooning Twitter fans. Soon enough, a handful of politicians had agreed to meet with the group.
On the morning of his first visit to Capitol Hill, as he donned a slick gray windowpane suit and a black polka-dot tie and combed his perfect hair back from his perfect forehead, Evans felt a wave of doubt. “This isn’t my lane,” he recalls thinking as he walked through the maze of the Russell Senate Office Building. Here, people were making real change, affecting the lives of millions of Americans. “And shit,” Evans said to himself, “I didn’t even go to college.”
The trio’s first stop was the office of Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. “Which one is the senator?” Evans asked.
Coons, having never watched any of the Avengers movies, didn’t know who Evans was, either. But in short order, he says, he was won over by the actor’s charm and “very slight but still noticeable” Boston accent. The thing that got Coons the most, though—the thing that would lead him to pass out pocket cards on the Senate floor to recruit others, especially Republicans, to take part in the project—was how refreshing it was to be asked simple questions: Why should we support the United Nations? Why does foreign aid matter? Coons saw real value in trying to explain these things, simply and plainly, to his constituents.
“Look, I’m not naive,” Coons says. He is the first to admit that one-minute videos won’t fix what’s wrong with American politics. “But it’s important for there to be attempts at civic education and outreach,” he adds. “And, you know, his fictional character fought for our nation in a time of great difficulty.”
Evans stiffens slightly when people mention Captain America. The superhero comparison is, admittedly, a little obvious. But again and again on Capitol Hill, the shtick proved useful: Sometimes it’s better to be Captain America than a Hollywood liberal elite who defends Roe v. Wade and wants to ban assault weapons. When Evans met Jim Risch, the Republican senator from Idaho joked about catching him up on NATO, “since he missed the 70 years after World War II.” When he met Representative Dan Crenshaw, a hard-line Texas Republican and former Navy SEAL who lost his right eye in Afghanistan, Crenshaw lifted up his eye patch to reveal a glass prosthetic painted to look like Captain America’s shield.
Eventually, Evans loosened up—at least he lost the tie. Since that first round of visits, he and Kassen have returned to Washington every six weeks or so, collecting more than 1,000 videos from more than 100 members of Congress, along with about half of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls. Evans has conducted every interview himself. Kassen, meanwhile, managed the acquisition of a video compression startup in Montreal. About a dozen of the company’s engineers are building a custom content management system for A Starting Point, which is slated to go live in February. They’re running bandwidth tests too—just in case, as Kassen worries, “everyone in Chris’ audience logs on that first day.”
“We have to do this now,” Evans says. “It’s out there. We have to finish this. Shit.”
Back in LA, Evans pulls up the site on his iPhone. He hesitates for a moment and covers the screen with his hand. It’s still a demo, he explains, in the same bashful tone he uses to tell me the guest bathroom is out of toilet paper.
On the homepage, there’s a clip of Evans explaining how to use the site and a carousel of “trending topics” (energy, charter schools, Hong Kong). You can enter your address to call up a list of your representatives and find their videos; you can also contact them directly through the site. The rest is organized by topic and question, with a matrix of one-minute videos for each—Democrats in the left-hand column, Republicans on the right.
Early on in the development of the site, Evans and Kassen fought over fact-checking. Kassen, arguing against, was concerned about the optics: Who were they to arbitrate truth? Evans insisted that A Starting Point would only seem objective if visitors knew the answers had been vetted somehow. Ultimately he prevailed, and they agreed to hire a third-party fact-checker. They have yet to put their thousand-plus videos through the wringer, so for now I’m seeing first drafts. If they’re found to contain falsehoods, Evans says, they won’t appear on the site at all.
Kassen showed me a sampling of some of this raw material. Under “What is DACA?” I found dozens of videos, offering dozens of different starting points.
One representative, a Republican whose district lies near the Mexican border, describes the program’s recipients as “1.2 million men and women who have only known the United States as their home.” They go to school, he explains; they serve in the military; they’ve all passed background checks.
Another Republican representative says, “So, DACA is a result of a really bad immigration system … We’re seeing record numbers of families crossing the border because a kid equals a token for presence in the US. All right? We have all of these people come over, we can’t process them, they’re claiming asylum. I just heard from the secretary of Homeland Security this week, about nine in 10 don’t have valid claims of asylum. Meaning they’re not political—there’s no political persecution going on. OK?”
These two responses (from politicians on the same side of the aisle, no less) illustrate some of the quandaries that Evans, Kassen, and their fact-checkers are likely to encounter. The first representative, for instance, says there are 1.2 million DACA recipients, when in fact only 660,000 immigrants are currently enrolled in the program. The higher number is based on an estimate of those who could be eligible published by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. The “nine in 10” statistic, meanwhile, is a loose interpretation of data from 2018, which shows that only about 16 percent of immigrants who filed a “credible fear” claim were granted asylum. But this does not mean, as the representative implies, that the other claims weren’t “valid”—merely that they weren’t successful. Nearly half of all asylum claims from this time were dismissed for undisclosed reasons. These are fairly hair-splitting examples, but even the basic, definitional questions are drenched in opinion. What is Citizens United? “Horrible decision,” says a Democratic senator in his video response.
Evans doesn’t want to spend time refereeing politicians. To him, A Starting Point should act more like a database than a platform—rhetoric that rhymes with that of Facebook and Twitter, which have mostly sidestepped responsibility for their content. He’s just hosting the videos, he says; it’s up to politicians to decide how they answer the questions. There’s no comment section and no algorithmically generated list of recommended videos. “You need to decide what you need to watch next,” Kassen says.
One of the assumptions underlying Evans’ project—and it’s a very big assumption—is that the force of his fame will be enough to attract people who otherwise would have zero interest in watching a carousel of videos from their elected officials. This, by all accounts, is most people: Only a third of Americans can name their representatives in Congress, and those who can aren’t binge-watching C-Span. “Celebrities bring an extraordinary ability to get attention,” says Lauren Wright, a political researcher at Princeton and author of Star Power: American Democracy in the Age of the Celebrity Candidate. But Evans, she says, is “not taking the route that a lot of celebrities have, which is: The solution to American politics is me.” It would be one thing if Evans were guiding you through the inner workings of Congress like a chiseled Virgil. But why would someone watch a senator dryly explain NAFTA when they could watch, say, a YouTube video of Chris Evans on Jimmy Kimmel?
Without its leading man in the frame, A Starting Point begins to look uncomfortably similar to the many other platforms that have sought to fight partisanship online. A site called AllSides labels news sources as left, center, or right and encourages readers to create a balanced media diet with a little from each. A browser plug-in called Read Across the Aisle (“A Fitbit for your filter bubble”) measures the amount of time you spend on left-leaning, right-leaning, or centrist websites. The Flip Side bills itself as a “one-stop shop for smart, concise summaries of political analysis from both conservative and liberal media.”
The underlying idea—that there would be a new birth of civic engagement if only we could wrest control of the information economy from the hands of self-serving ideologues and deliver the news to citizens unbiased and uncut—is an old one. In 1993, when the modern internet was just a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, Michael Crichton wrote in this magazine’s pages that he was sick and tired of the “polarized, junk-food journalism” propagated by traditional media outlets. (This was three years before Fox News and MSNBC came into being; he was talking about The New York Times.) What society needed, he argued, was something more like C-Span, something that encouraged people to draw their own conclusions.
But does any of it work? Not according to Wright. “We have many years of research on these questions, and the consensus among scholars is that the proliferation of media choices—including sites like Evans’—has not increased political knowledge or participation,” she says. “The problem isn’t the lack of information. It’s the lack of interest.” Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, agrees. “All of these fact-checking initiatives, all of this work that goes into trying to disambiguate issues or trying to reduce noise—people have no time,” he says. “Some people care about politics, but those are not the people you need to reach.”
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Naturally, this sort of talk makes Evans a little nervous. But he takes refuge in what he sees as the core strengths of the concept. For one thing, he argues, snack-size videos are more accessible than text. Also, those other sites rely on a translator to interpret the issues, while A Starting Point goes straight to the source. It’s not for policy wonks. It’s for average Americans, centrists, extremists, swing voters—everyone!—who want to hear about policy straight from the horse’s mouth. (Never mind that most people hold horses in higher regard.)
Evans has all kinds of ideas for how to keep people coming back. He might add a section of the website where representatives can upload weekly videos for their constituents, or a place where policymakers from different parties can discuss bipartisan compromise. He talks about these ideas with an enthusiasm so pure and so believable that you almost forget he’s an actor. The whole point, he says, is giving Americans a cheap seat on the kinds of conversations that are happening on Capitol Hill. That’s a show that Evans is betting people actually want to see.
The worst thing that could happen isn’t that nobody watches the videos. That would suck, but Evans could deal with it. What gets him riled up most is thinking about what he might have failed to consider. What if the site ends up promoting some bizarre agenda that he never intended? What if people use the videos for some kind of twisted purpose? “One miscalculation,” he says, “and you may not get back on track.” (See: Facebook.)
Evans knows his idea to save democracy can come off a little Pollyannaish, and if it flops, it’ll be his reputation on the line. But he really, really believes in it. OK, so maybe it won’t save America, but it might piece together some of what’s been broken. A fresh start. A starting point.
“This does feel to me like everybody wins here. I don’t see how this becomes a problem,” he says, before a look of panic crosses his face, the anxiety setting in again.
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Arielle Pardes (@pardesoteric) wrote about the death of startups in issue 27.12.
Set designer: Anthony A. Altomare; fashion stylist: Ilaria Urbinati at The Wall Group; groomer: Joanna Pensinger at The Wall Group; assistant fashion stylist: Savannah Mendoza.
Opening image (Chris Evans): T-shirt by Calvin Klein, pants by Eleventy, boots by Jimmy Choo, watch by IWC. Second image (Mark Kassen): fashion stylist: Pam Kassen; all clothes by John Varvatos; shoes by Fiorentini+Baker. Third image (Evans): sweater by Dunhill; pants by Eleventy; shoes by Jimmy Choo; watch by IWC.
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