Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S3. EPISODE 1
Vaccine Equity and Bipartisan Reality
Featuring Eric Swalwell & Jeff Colyer
What’s the impact of the new malaria vaccine with “world-changing” potential? Was there a lack of scrutiny over the worldwide Covid vaccine rollouts? Is there an update on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals? Plus, we talk with Congressman Eric Swalwell and Jeff Colyer, former Governor of Kansas, about the process, practicalities, and hope for a bipartisan future.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is season three of our podcast. This season, we’re going to mix it up a bit. The first few seasons were focused on guests, most of whom were members of The Progress Network who are not mired in dyspeptic dystopia but instead were focused on trying to build that future of our hopes and not the one of our fears. And we will continue in the same vein this season with guests, not all of whom will be members of The Progress Network, although they might eventually become so. But in addition, Emma and I will focus a bit more on the news of the week, much of which comes from our newsletter, What Could Go Right?, the same name as the podcast, and talk a bit more specifically about things that are going on in real-time, whether or not they’re in real-time exactly in the moment you are listening to, depends on when you are listening to this. But we’ll focus a bit more on some of the news that would’ve escaped notice because much of that news doesn’t get noticed. And one of the presumptions and propositions of The Progress Network and of this podcast is that there is no good news, meaning the news industry is not about providing good news. It’s about providing dramatic news and outrage and fear and concern and anxiety and hot emotions tend to dominate the news cycle as they always have. That’s not really a critique about the ill motives of anyone in the news industry. It’s just the human nature of what gets attention and eyeballs most quickly. So we are attempting to do more of the slow news and much of the slow news is the good news that doesn’t get attention during the news cycle and that will be particularly egregiously true as the United States heads into its midterm elections in November. We’ll continue this season through that. And true of other countries like Brazil, which is ending its own presidential election, or China, which is about to anoint Xi Jinping, you name it. There will not be a sudden outburst, a plethora of good news. There’s no real risk of that in the short term, the midterm, maybe there’s some risk of that if this sentiment continues to build in the long term. So we’re gonna look at some of that news of the day. We’re gonna look at some of the constructive stories that are going on all around us all of the time, but don’t get the notice that they should, and also have compelling, hopefully dynamic conversations with people whose sensibility is about solving the problems, identifying them, but solving them and not getting mired in them. So, Emma, what are we gonna talk about today?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Well, before we get into the good and maybe also dramatic news, we’re gonna have a conversation later with two people who are politicians. They’re gonna talk to us about whether there really is a path forward towards bipartisanship. And that’s Congressman Eric Swalwell out of California and Jeff Colyer who’s a former governor of Kansas. Excited to talk to them, but before we get there, I wanted to start with, bum bada bum, the malaria vaccine that just came out of Oxford.
[Audio Clip] Carried by mosquitoes, the malaria parasite continues to have a devastating impact in Sub-Saharan Africa, where it kills around half a million children each year. Now, a highly effective vaccine may be within reach. Trials in Burkina Faso in West Africa involving 450 children had already shown that three doses of Oxford University’s malaria vaccine gave around 75% protection for a year. New results show that a booster dose at 12 months extends protection for a second year at up to 80%.
EV: Now this is something that the world has made a lot of progress on already, just cutting down on malaria deaths. But one thing that we’ve not been able to accomplish is an efficacious malaria vaccine. And now we actually have two, and I’m not sure that people have heard about this. What do you think?
ZK: I don’t know. Tell us about the two. I mean, I had thought, you know, before we talked about this, that malaria was a disease that was still a major tropical issue in large portions of the world, but that there were really effective treatments for it.
EV: Yeah, correct. Correct. So, I mean, so many people have experience with COVID now. They know that in the COVID story, the vaccines kind of came out as the thing that saved the day and the treatments came later. So it’s been backwards with malaria. Like you said, we’ve had treatments that have been getting better and better, anti-malarial pills, insecticides, bed nets. But up until now, there hasn’t been any malaria vaccines at all to help with the problem. So it’s mostly children under five who die from malaria. It’s still almost half a million people who die per year. Last year, we got the first ever efficacious malaria vaccine. And just this week, or a couple weeks ago, Oxford came out with the first vaccine that’s going to be 80% effective at showing in early stage trials. So this is exciting because people are saying now like actually we could end malaria deaths in our lifetime.
ZK: So who’s gonna pay? I mean, as we saw, one of the real challenges of COVID vaccines was that wealthy countries had the money, subsidized the vaccines, and organized really, really effective but costly distribution networks. And even though we were highly critical in the United States about how quickly and how equally among states, we distributed COVID vaccines, nonetheless, we distributed a lot of COVID vaccines, much of which was subsidized. And one of the critiques of vaccine distribution globally is that, of course, the poorer parts of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa, you know, interior parts of Latin America, parts of Southeast Asia were the last to get access to those vaccines.
EV: Yeah. Who’s gonna pay? [laugh] The big question. I don’t think that there is an answer yet, butit’s definitely a topic that’s hot on everyone’s minds right now, or maybe just hot on our minds because we’re paying attention to these things. But did you see that big sort of political exposé about Bill Gates and the vaccine equity distribution problem you were just talking about?
ZK: Yes, I did. The one hand, there was this incredible sense of optimism and isn’t this amazing that what the Gates Foundation has done in addressing diseases and cures, but there was also the pushback of has this actually effectively been distributed. You know, it’s one thing to do something in a lab or have a great idea that you’ve germinated. It’s another thing when you have to operationalize a great idea. And look, I keep pushing back on all these things ’cause I think it’s really important for all of us, even in the face of good news, to really ask the question of how’s this gonna work.
EV: Let’s just lay out some of the basics for people just in case, you know, they haven’t been following. So there was a constellation, actually a small group, a small constellation, of about four NGOs that stepped up to the plate with the COVID vaccines. And they’re all funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or they were linked to them, and they set up this thing called COVAX that made sure that amidst all of this hoarding from the rich nations, like the US, of the COVID vaccines, that poorer nations that didn’t have their own manufacturing capabilities were able to get in on that and get some of these vaccine doses. And this political article was fairly critical on the execution of this, that, you know, these NGOs certainly stepped up to the plate where governments were not stepping up, but how good of a job did they really do? And it was like a who’s watching them sort of thing. And what do you think of that critique?
ZK: Look, I think it is important to recognize, one, that there’s only so much the private organizations can do when it comes to national distribution of vital goods, right? Private organizations typically cannot build national infrastructure, although we’ve seen energy companies and mining companies in Sub-Saharan Africa clearly can build, you know, the roads that they need to the place that they need to ship them, whether that’s Chinese companies, American companies, European companies, but sort of national efforts to really reach people that have no profit associated with it either require a massive funding from private organizations like the Gates Foundation, but even the Gates Foundation at its tens of billions of dollars is unable to solve those problems across nations, which require ongoing amounts in the hundreds of billions. So I think the critique is legitimate insofar as those private organizations should not be overpromising and under-delivering, right? They should not be acting like this is a problem that they should solve. And I’m not claiming that the Gates Foundation ever said we’re gonna solve singlehandedly the entire vaccine development and distribution problem, but it does bear sort of reminding that these are not one-offs. They’re not susceptible to solutions from any one particular organization, and that in that respect, all good news should be juxtaposed to how do we actually make this real, right? As opposed to an idea. And when you get into the weeds of those realities, yeah, some of these things end up being a lot more complicated, a lot slower, and often just don’t work. So I think, I don’t mind the exposé. I mind the sort of gotcha part of the exposé.
EV: Yeah. I kept reading it and I guess the short way to say what you just said much more eloquently is, like, well, who else was gonna do it? [laugh] You know, like what would we have preferred, that, you know, we just let these other nations not get a hand into the process at all?
ZK: One might say that that question was not just the shorter way of saying it, but the more effective communication way of saying.
EV: [laugh] Maybe, maybe, maybe, but it’s interesting to talk about, you know, whether this stuff is effective or not because the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also just came out with their annual report on the Sustainable Development Goals, which some of our listeners might remember. We had a discussion with John McArthur about that. So these, like, big picture goals, like we’re talking about to eliminate poverty, to have gender equality, like really, really big stuff.
ZK: And we are having this conversation at the beginning of UN Sustainable Development Week in New York City, Climate Week, which is juxtaposed to the UN annual meeting in New York. So whether you’re listening to this approximate to that or not, it’s in the air. It’s certainly in my air right now, given that I’m sitting in New York City. So that’s part of the whole buzz. And there’s also been a lot of pushback against that. There’s been pushback against ESG, environmental, social, governance, mantras in investing that’s come under a lot more scrutiny as it’s become much more ubiquitous. You know, as long as it was a fringe thing, it had much more support from a passionate, engaged community. Now that it’s more of a generalized thing, it’s coming under some attack, some more from the right than from the left in the United States, and Sustainable Development Goals, which have been quietly germinating and developing over the past 10 to 15 years and are now embedded in a lot of global aid conversations. You know, it’s a big deal in the Biden administration to appoint a global climate advisor in John Kerry. I think the pushback there is often are these just yet another series of ever, ever ongoing conversations while all these global organizations get together and spend countless hours developing position papers and mission statements and long-range goals, but nobody is actually held accountable for whether or not those goals are being met.
EV: That’s what’s interesting about the report, right? I guess it’s like the cold, hard facts. It’s the numbers of, you know, like, are we making progress on these or not? And the report was sort of like, I read it. And when you look at the numbers, if you’re looking across the last 30 years, like from 1990, which is when I was born, incidentally, things have definitely improved. Like we’ve had much fewer maternal deaths, a bunch of neglected tropical diseases that prevalence has dropped by more than 70%, share of the global population with access to clean water and sanitation has doubled. So when you’re tracking across the long term, it’s like kind of impressive. But if you listen to Bill Gates talk about it and he’s done a couple of interviews about the Goalkeepers Report. He’s, like, not so enthused about the pace of the progress. I think he said, we’d have to increase the progress five times to reach the goals by 2030. And it’s that overpromising, under-delivering thing that you were talking about before.
ZK: Yeah. I mean, there’s unrealistic goals like the ones that Elon Musk sets for his own companies. We’re gonna be on Mars by 2025. Yeah, no, we’re not gonna be on Mars by 2025. We’d be lucky if we’re back on the moon by 2025. The question is setting audacious goals, right? That’s a big Silicon Valley thing, let’s set audacious targets. Let’s have an audacious vision of the future. Is doing that, even with the awareness of that audacity will almost certainly not be met by actual deliverables by the date enunciated, is doing that an accelerant,? Does it get people fired up? Does it create a sense of urgency that galvanizes a lot of people to work really hard to meet that date, right? ‘Cause a goal and a date are often coincident. I mean, if I say to you, “I wanna learn Chinese”, but I don’t say that I have a time in which I actually wanna be competent, then I could just kind of be learning Chinese for the next 40 years and never really learn it. So I think there is utility in setting a date and saying, “I’m gonna do this by this point.” Even if you kind of know, I probably won’t do it by that point. And, you know, I think Gates is used to the deliverables and the metrics, and that’s been a big part of big philanthropy, we talked about that a bit with Rachel Pritzker last season, to have goals that are measurable and deliverable. But you can also get too mired in that, you know, meaning you lose sight of not everything that is good is quantifiable. We talk about this a lot in the work that we’re doing here, that part of the problem of changing sensibilities and changing how we view the world is not immeasurable and non-deliverable and, or at least it’s not susceptible to kind of quantitative tools. It may be susceptible to qualitative ones, but not to quantitative ones. So that’s my also long-winded way of saying, yeah, I respect that things have not moved maybe with the accelerant or alacrity that someone like Bill Gates or someone who wants things and thinks things should be done by now. You know, if you have to do a software release by September of X year, the software better be debugged enough so that you can release it by X time. Otherwise, the market’s gonna react really negatively, but, you know, big change is not always easily discernible in the chaotic messiness of the moment. So I’m not so sure that I have such negativity about we’re not gonna be where we wanted to be by 2030. And unless you believe that there’s some existential turning point in what I’m sure we’ll get to this later in the season, you know, that the Antarctic ice is gonna all melt because of sudden climate change, in which case, you know, all bets are off, then it’s more a matter of are we making progress quickly than are we making it by a certain date?
EV: And then of course there’s also that little personal thing. And I’m sure like Bill Gates after so many years of devoting like time, energy, money to all of this, he’s like not getting any younger. And I’m sure he wants to see some real meaningful success before he goes away that we’re all gonna go. [laugh]
ZK: I wanna know that the world is different and better by the time I die.
EV: Yeah. It’s a huge legacy, yeah. [laugh]
ZK: Right. Yeah. Well, don’t we all?
EV: [laugh] But yeah, I think the audacity thing is really important to get that motivation going. But like you’re saying, when we fall short, we can’t look at that as a failure and reason not to keep going. We’re certainly trending in the right direction, maybe not in the past year or two, and that was the point of the report, because of the pandemic and the Ukrainian war. But Bill Gates also makes the point that just as those crises were unknowns and we couldn’t predict them with forecasting, something like mRNA, which we’ve talked about before are also unknown. So we can’t predict them with forecasting on the good side. So we don’t know, maybe we’ll get there by 2030 and Bill Gates can die happy.
ZK: I mean, that really is the goal. Of course. So let’s turn now to an area that no one has any hope it was gonna get any better anytime soon, which means maybe it will actually get a little bit better sometime soon, but political dynamics in the United States, partisan acrimony, division, hatred sense of they are the enemy and we are the people on the side of the angels has become so profoundly and deeply entrenched, certainly in American political dialogues, that it’s hard to see any place for collective action. And you know, some of this, and we’ll now turn to two people who have been both deeply mired in the partisan, ’cause they’d both run for office successfully, but I think also share a sense that it’s actually more possible for people to continue to work collectively and together for constructive solutions to collective problems. So tell us a little bit about who we’re gonna talk to.
EV: So our guests, first is Eric Swalwell. He’s a member of the US House representing California’s 15th congressional district, and he was elected in 2012. So he’s been in office for a while now. He served on the permit select committee on intelligence and was a ranking member of the subcommittee on the CIA in the 115th Congress. And our second guest is Jeff Colyer, MD. He’s the former governor of Kansas. He was sworn in as governor in 2018. And prior to that, he was lieutenant governor from 2011 to 2018. And he was also a part of the Kansas House of Representatives in 2006 and the Kansas Senate in 2008. He was a White House fellow for international affairs under presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.
ZK: So, Congressman Swalwell, Governor Colyer, welcome to What Could Go Right? So both of you have enjoyed electoral success. Governor, you’ve served as, well, governor of Kansas and lieutenant governor and the state senate. Congressman, you’ve been representing your district in Congress for, I think this will be your 9th year going into your 10th, presuming. And you used to be the, you know, youngest member of the delegation. Now you’re a gray beard in Congress years. And I think, you know, the normal rub on American politics is that Republicans and Democrats can’t, won’t, are completely incapable of working together, and increasingly see each other as enemies, not just adversaries, but actual enemies, right? Like wherever your starting point is, you’re them, and them is bad and evil or wrong, and we’re us, and we’re good and right and on the side of angels. And I wish that were a crudely reductive statement, but I think it does capture a lot of, at least the public sentiment. I guess I wanna talk to both of you ’cause you’ve both been in this. I’m increasingly struck by, like, how much goes on, Congressman, in Congress that doesn’t get reported, isn’t discussed. You know, bills are passed, agricultural appropriations, some regulatory stuff that just kind of goes on. You know, there’s actual government, but, you know, unless it’s a POLITICO Pro or some local newsletter that cares about this, it never gets talked about. Why is that? Maybe tell me if I’m wrong, but there is actual constructive governing going on where people on both sides of the aisle, that noise of we hate each other is either left outside the room or is an incomplete picture.
Eric Swalwell (ES): A ton. You’re absolutely right. And every congressional session, which is, you know, two years, over 10,000 pieces of legislation are introduced and almost every piece of legislation has a bipartisan co-sponsor. You know, that doesn’t mean they all get to the floor for a vote or make their way to the president’s desk. But I’ll just give you an example. In the last month, I’ve passed two pieces of legislation that President Biden signed, and both of them were bipartisan. One on homicide cold cases creates a pathway for a victim’s family to have a cold case reexamined after three years. I worked with a Republican former federal prosecutor, Mike McCaul, from Texas. He’s a friend. We’ve worked on many issues, got passed, went to the president, and frankly, we tried to get the White House to do a signing ceremony around this because we thought this is, you know, good for victims. It’s pro law enforcement, pro victim. And we weren’t able to do that. We sent out press releases. No one really picked it up. And then last week with a Republican named Guy Reschenthaler from Pennsylvania, passed and President Biden signed at the end of the week legislation that extends the child sexual assault statute of limitations. So if a child is sexually assaulted, you know, it extends the victim’s ability, you know, once they become an adult to go back and seek accountability. And, again, like pro victim, pro, I would say, law enforcement, law and order, and you didn’t see a single news story about it. That’s not because we didn’t try. I think it’s just right now, tension and drama is what is gonna get the clicks and the likes. And the media has calculated that if we put that at the top of our, you know, news hour, people are, you know, the eyeballs, so to speak, are gonna go away, and that’s frustrating, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
ZK: Got it. You know, I asked that question kind of rhetorically. I didn’t expect there to be a legislative I did two things in the past 10 days answer. So, I mean, that’s such a, you know, it’s a QED moment. And Governor, so if you’re like me, I live in New York City, I’m sort of guilty as charged, I’m sure, for all the various stereotypes. You’re a Kansan and we’re deeply in state politics. And certainly, the way in which we ever hear about state politics is it’s all a jungle of partisan insanity. And that’s true on both sides, right? I mean, if you’re in Kansas, it’s California is a jungle partisan insanity. If you’re in California or in New York, it’s Kansas. And then we’re all astonished, you know, in Kansas votes down and a referendum, an abortion ban, like, oh my God, really, there are people in Kansas who have a multiplicity of views? So when you were in state government, you know, what’s your version of what Congressman Swalwell just talked about?
Jeff Colyer (JC): Well, I agree. You’ll pass hundreds of bills and the vast majority of them move the ball a little bit, you know, overall, and then you also have to do bigger things. You gotta pass a budget, you know, you have to actually govern. And sometimes, that can be done in a bipartisan fashion. You know, it depends a little bit on the structure of your legislature and your executive as well. And then sometimes, you have to really go and fight to get a bipartisan bill. So for example, we had an order from the Supreme Court. We’d been fighting literally for 50 years, having a battle over school finance, and Supreme Court made a ruling. We were able to put together, I put together a bipartisan solution to it. We put some more money in schools and started to have some results attached to that. And we got it through. And we actually have, you know, stayed out of court now for the first time in 50 years, you know, not having this dry end. I think you’re capable of doing it, but it’s hard work. It really is.
EV: So I have a question as the sort of token millennial on this show.
ES: Hey, hey, hey, Emma, I am a pioneer of the millennials, okay?
EV: [laugh] Fair enough. So we got two.
ES: 1980, The Oregon Trail.
EV: [laugh] Oh, The Oregon Trail. I was playing that in third grade. I have many, many strong memories of The Oregon Trail, so I’m glad to find another millennial with me on this show.
ZK: No “Okay, boomer” references.
EV: Okay, boomer [laugh] no. I couldn’t pass that up. But it’s a shade on Zachary’s question, which is my sort of political memory started in the George HW Bush era into the Obama era. That was like middle school, high school, beginning of college for me. And when you look at the political narrative now, it’s like, we’ve moved into such dysfunction and it’s different than how it used to be. And whenever I read these things, my question is always like, well, what’s the baseline functionality? Is there really this like golden past that we were in where politics wasn’t really messy and people weren’t yelling at each other, even sometimes hitting each other, you know, on the Congress floor? So I’m wondering, you know, how do you see this? Like have we really moved away from some kind of baseline functionality? And if so, how much, or are we trotting along as per usual?
ES: Emma, it’s a great question. And I think the governor was correct. He said, you know, at the end of the day, you have to govern. And to me, that means, you know, do you, you know, attack and work the problems, or are you just working for your own power? And that’s regardless of, you know, which party is in power. And I think the issue that I think of right now that highlights the premise of where we started, which is that you’re seeing less and less of that, like collaboration to solve big issues, is probably immigration. And so you invoked, you know, President Bush and, you know, President Bush is a Republican governor, a border state governor, was the first, I would say, mainstream Republican who tried to solve the issue of immigration. He didn’t, but president Obama came into office, and in 2014, 68 Republicans and Democrats passed a bipartisan immigration bill, including Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, that put approximately 28,000 new border patrol agents on the border and also, you know, created a pathway to citizenship, you know, through vetting and not going to the front of the line, but going to the back. And, you know, we never got a vote in the House, and had we gotten a vote in the House, I think that would’ve been the, you know, a way to attack the problem by increasing border security, but also, you know, bringing people out of the shadows. And then fast forward to today and what you see is just a border theater, right? That you don’t see two parties anywhere close to being able to strike what we did in 2014. You see, you know, governors, you know, flying immigrants from the border to, you know, know states to, you know “own the libs.” And we’re so far away from where we were in 2014 when we came so close. And so that’s one issue that persists, and it doesn’t serve anyone that, you know, neither party is able to find a way, you know, to solve that crisis. And it’s only going to get worse.
JC: You know, I think there’s another aspect of this that is rarely talked about, and that is the electoral world, the political world is profoundly different than it was in 1980 and 2000. So for example, in 1980, if you just kind of arbitrarily split the population at the age of 50 and take out everybody that can’t vote, so you have two populations of voters sort of 18 to 50 and 50 on up. In, you know, 1980, that split was about 63/37, you know, so there was a real difference between them. Today, that split is 52/48. And so the demography is so profoundly different now. So how those numbers work, and as that shift is happening, we’re all operating, you know, in that. The ocean is really different than what it was 40 years ago or 30 years ago, or frankly, even in 2000. I think those things have a huge impact in where we’re going.
EV: I’m wondering if you could elucidate a little bit, since we’re swimming in these different waters, in this different ocean, like, what does that mean in a practical sense of how? So I understand the demographics have shifted, but exactly how those numbers play with each other, like, could you give us a little bit more?
JC: Well, for starters, if you think about there is an economic difference between under 50 and above 50 perspective of the world, we’ll try to put everybody in that box, but, you know, on one side, you’re trying to accumulate, the other side, you’re trying to hold on to what you have is how one demographer called it, but, you know, the perspectives of the world are changing. And what that means though is there’s more opportunity for conflict. You’re in almost in a one for one sort of situation. Whereas, you know, before, you know, there was definitely a different population sense. And, you know, you had more room, you know, for consensus in one sense. But, anyway, it’s an interesting, I think the demography really changes and it provides many more opportunities for conflict between people because we’re really evenly divided in many ways.
ZK: You know, it’s funny, one of the knocks on American democracy before 2016 was election cycle after election cycle after election cycle, there was fewer and fewer percentages of the eligible electorate voting. And the United States was kind notable in how indifferent a lot of the electorate had been to the political process. You know, so you had essentially Congress was decided by 25% of the electorate, plus, you know, even the presidency given that barely 50% voted and then 2016, 2020 were periods of intense voter activism, I think 2018 as well. And it looks like 2022 will be much the same. And in fact, if you looked at, again, the Kansas referendum, I mean, massive numbers of people showed up for a primary where that actual referendum was, you know, in many ways, that kind of participatory energy is a good thing, right? We want a healthy democracy to have an engaged electorate, not an indifferent apathetic electorate. The question is in that Machiavelli world, you know, is it better to be feared or loved? Can you have an engaged electorate that is animated by sort of hope and positive desire for change as opposed to the way you really engage electorate is you scare the hell out of people and then they show up ’cause they’re either really scared or really angry. I mean, Congressman, do you think you can energize people? I mean, I get your point, you passed these very constructive bills, but not only can’t you get CNN or Fox to pay attention to that, can you actually get voters to pay attention to that?
ES: No. And the best example is that, you know, President Biden, in his first two years, you know, his agenda, you know, the COVID relief, the infrastructure and jobs package, the CHIPS Act, you know, to counter China, the gun safety legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, you know, serious signature legislative achievements that will rival any president’s legislative record in the last hundred years with the thinnest of majorities. And, you know, frankly, we find ourselves, you know, going into this election having to contrast A versus B like, yes, we have done all that, we’ll keep doing more of that, but by the way, don’t go with these guys because it’s chaos, it’s violence, it’s incompetency, et cetera. And so I do think just American politics, you know, in a 24-hour news cycle, social media era perhaps throwing in what the governor described with, you know, the demographic issues, it kind of forces this, you know, and Joe Biden has said this, and Barack Obama has said this, you know, don’t judge me against the Almighty, judge me against, you know, the alternative. You know, they’ve kind of joked, but I think there’s a seriousness in that. And so, yes, we have delivered on our legislative agenda, but at the end of the day, we have to convince the voters, you know, the danger of giving the keys to government, you know, to the other side. I wish just having legislative achievements would be enough, especially ones that, you know, pull mostly like above 50% as far as what people want. But I think, you know, the risk is if you’re defined by the other side, then you are at risk of not being able to continue your legislative journey.
ZK: And, Governor, from your vantage, right, you kind of narrowly lost your reelection bid to Kris Kobach, who had been, I think, legitimately seen as the leading edge of MAGA or Trump Republicans. George W, he campaigns in 2000 on a message of compassionate conservatism, right? He was gonna be kind of the unifying conservative. Now, whether or not that was just words that proved to be completely hollow, the fact is they were campaign words that proved to be somewhat effective. Could you imagine any turn today back toward that? And, again, I’m not suggesting that those words were backed up by reality. I’m just saying you don’t campaign on something that either doesn’t focus group well or poll well, or you think is not a message that people want to hear, you know. Do you feel there’s any indication of a shift in the public climate, even if the news and explicit climate is as agitated and extreme and palpably hysterical as it ever was?
JC: Well, I think people want you to get things done, okay? They want to believe that you are listening to them and you can demonstrate actual results. And, you know, in the current, you know, environment, I think that is the priority. You know, the world is a little different and W Bush, you know, was extraordinarily, you know, a demagogue and, you know, there were arguments about the legitimacy of his election and all of that, but that was a different world. He was responding to a different time and to a different outlook. But I really think people need to hear us communicate, we’re listening to you, we’re gonna get the results that you’re seeking, and, you know, we’re gonna make this go in the right direction. And, you know, I may severely disagree with Biden, administration’s, you know, budget proposals and a number of things they’re doing. And, you know, we’re trying to express, you know, here’s where we’re gonna go. This is why this doesn’t work for us.
ES: The governor made a point. I’ve thought a lot about, you know, Bush and the election and some of the demagoguing. And I do fear that at least, you know, for me, that the first race I seriously thought about was the 2000 election. And then of course, the subsequent elections. And so for, you know, me and Emma, like for our generation, politics has always been so existential as far as who governs the country. And so Democrats, myself included, guilty as charged, you know, looked at, you know, the Bush presidency as, you know, the end of America, like if this was allowed to continue, it could be, you know, the end of, you know, democracy. And it was, you know, largely because of how we felt about the Iraq war. And then, you know, president Obama comes into office. And again, the other side led by the tea party, you know, felt the same way, so much that they questioned whether he was even a US citizen. And so you kinda had this, like, existential perspective that’s been projected on America’s leaders that in 2017, when, you know, President Trump took the oath and you’ve had back and forth both sides saying, this is the worst thing, it’s the end of democracy when you actually had the greatest and most serious threat to democracy. I think a lot of people who don’t follow politics every day were just like, okay, well, that’s what you said about Bush in the 2000s, and that’s what you said about Obama during his eight years. And so I think it is a lesson about crying wolf, at least on, like, the threat to democracy ’cause I think we missed the opportunity to really alarm people about what Donald Trump did because he’s in a category of his own compared, you know, to issues over policy that I had with George W. Bush. So going forward, give me the problem that democracy is still around in the next couple presidential elections, I think it’s a lesson for me, as, you know, an elected official, you know, to, you know, pump the brakes if your only disagreement with someone is over policy and you’re not dealing with, you know, corruption or just a lack of a moral compass. And I think that largely is something that has plagued us over the last two decades.
EV: I’m so glad you brought that up, Congressman, because that’s exactly how I feel. And I think that’s what I was trying to point to with the baseline functionality is that when your political consciousness starts with this existential messaging, it’s really easy to lose the plot, right? And I was wondering how it’s been for both of you, you know, thinking along this we’re in a different world now conversation that we’ve been talking about in terms of social media, because the existential messaging is the messaging that does get the likes and clicks, you know, you were talking about it before, Congressman. So I’m wondering what has that impulse been like for both of you and how do you work with that, you know, in this strange new world of social media, which we’re still all adjusting to?
ES: Sure. I mean, you know, I have a responsibility, you know, to try and — my job title’s representative, and so I would normally represent, you know, my constituents and communicate with them and engage with them, and social media gives you, you know, the ability to do that. But also, as I said earlier, it also gives you the ability to kind of, you know, define your priorities and contrast your priorities with the alternatives. But also, there is just, you know, a temptation, you know, to — I think that on social media, the risk is that it can become not a better way to represent your constituents, but just pro wrestle, right? Like at its worst, that, you know, and that’s what I found with a lot of my colleagues, is that they will just rip me apart on social media. They’ll say the worst things about me on social media. And then when I see them in person, they’re like, “Hey, Swalwell, how’s it going, buddy?” Like, “Good to see you. We gotta get together again.” And I’m just like, “What?” I’ll give you one example, a colleague of mine, who I’ve written legislation with, chaired a caucus with, back in the winter of 2020, he sent a pretty nasty tweet about me, and I called him out about it.
ES: And his response was, “Buddy,” he’s like, “I did not write that tweet. It was the staff. It’s coming down.” And I said, “Well, we can’t really work together on this caucus. It looks so weird to people who wanna join us if you’re saying this, if you really think this about me. ” “Not A problem. It’s coming down.” An hour later, I text him. I said, “Hey, the tweet is still up.” He goes, “I talked to my staff. It’s coming down.” And my staff, like, pinged me a couple hours later. And they said, the tweet is still up. And so I called him again and he said to me, he goes, “Look, my staff looked at the analytics on this tweet, and it’s the best tweet I’ve ever sent.” He’s like, “So, like, it would just look weird if I take it down.” And it felt like, you’re my friend, like, you’ve met my wife. We’ve had beers together. Like, you don’t even agree with this tweet. You’re telling me your staff wrote it. But because it’s the best performing tweet you’ve ever had, like it has to stay up? And then I just kind of realized that that’s how it works. And one other example, during the impeachment trial when I was an impeachment manager, I was in the Senate bathroom and washing my hands and then Ted Cruz was at the sink right next to me and introduced himself and reached across the sink and gave me a fist bump and said, “Hey, I’m Ted. I don’t think we’ve ever met.” And I had seen him a couple nights before, like calling me out by name on Fox News. And as we’re, like, drying our hands, he said, “I want you to know you’re doing a hell of a job out there. I just watched your presentation, and you’re doing a hell of a job.” And again, I just thought like, “What?”, like you just said this and this and this, but I’ve come to realize, like pro wrestling, it’s really what happens in the ring and what happens backstage is not the same thing. And for many, the ring is where you entertain and you give the “fans”, constituents, what they want, but backstage, you know, we all get the joke or we understand it’s not real. And I’ve seen social media push us to that. And that is what I fear. If the fans don’t know that it’s fake, then you get the worst consequences from them when they go out in the community and think that that’s how they’re supposed to act. And that’s what I really fear.
ZK: I am not entirely sure whether to be really heartened by that story or incredibly depressed or some combination thereof. What do you make of that, Governor?
JC: Well, sitting on a different side, which is if you’re a Republican and you are trying to break into the news cycle, okay, it is near impossible to do that in a positive manner. If you’re a Democrat in my state, you’ll get a positive, you know, response from things. And so for example, you know, in Kansas, there isn’t a single conservative newspaper. There is, frankly, not even a conservative columnist in my entire state. When you look at that, you’ve gotta live in the social media world. Much of the environment and much of that news cycle from our perspective is, you know, just wrong. We don’t get a fair hearing. Many Republicans, you know, feel like, you know, all I’m gonna do is be demagogged, you know, as soon as I get on there. And that’s a real challenge that, you know, the media does is not split up in, you know, the way the world is set up, you know, right now. It’s a very different environment.
ZK: Right? So I have a final question for both of you. Purely hypothetical, but interesting to think about. If we’re having this conversation at this point in 2025, are we feeling that some of the storm has passed and the fever has broken, or are we looking back at this moment and thinking this was such a nice caesura, [laugh] a nice moment of calm between storms. I mean, are we at the tail end of a prolonged period of just ever escalating animosity, or are we three years from now going, “Wow, this has gotten so much worse.”?
JC: I think the demography is still going to be pretty similar. What’s going in in one end and coming out on the other is gonna take a decade or two, you know, to do that. So I think some of the fundamental things going on in the electorate are gonna be the same. And so I think you’re gonna see this sharp contrast. You know, the news media is going to be, you know, as it is. It’s gonna be pretty similar to today. You know, so looking at from my perspective, much of the world that we’re operating in is gonna be the same. Now, that being said though, is I think we really do a disservice to our democracy when we say we are truly at risk, you know, right now. The system does respond. We have been through, you know, the violence of the ’60s and anti-war, you know, through look at the last, you know, 50 years with this. We have a vibrant democracy. More people are voting than ever before. More people have more opportunities to express their needs. You know, I think people are really looking for, who’s going to be the strongest to represent me. And sometimes, it may be the loudest person, but it is also– people, they’re really good at sorting out. And so I trust the American people on this. I really think that democracy is still going to be there. We are still going to be in control of our destiny, but it’s gonna be important. The world is still gonna be there, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s a good thing. That tells you the resilience of the Republic.
ES: Yeah. I’m an optimist like the governor. I think 2025, we are still gonna be a democracy and we’ll be a stronger democracy, but I do fear that, you know, we’ve never seen as great of challenges, and I’m mindful that I’ve served what John Lewis, who, just as the governor pointed out when he was in the caucus would tell us, you know, you think times are tough now, try doing what I did in the ’50s and ’60s. But having been on the floor on January 6th and, you know, fearing that that was the end, not just for the people in the building, but, you know, for the country, and then looking at people who are on the ballot this upcoming November, who have said that if they win their attorney general race or, you know, their gubernatorial race or their secretary of state race that they will prosecute the people who certify the elections and their states in 2020. That does make me worry. But I still believe in this great country, and, frankly, I have my own selfish interest in saying this, of course, but I do believe that the midterms, what happens in the next 50 days, will determine, you know, the arc of the next, you know, two to five years. And I believe if the Democrats keep the House and the Senate and defy history, because that’s not supposed to happen in the president’s first midterm election, I think that finally breaks the fever on Trumpism because he will have lost the House in ’18. He’ll have lost the White House in ’20. And when everyone said, you’re supposed to get it back, again, we’ll have lost. And I think the through line is him. And I think that’s, you know, to quote Churchill, “It’s not the beginning of the end, but it’s the end of the beginning.”, for Trumpism. And I think that’s where the fever breaks, to kind of point out what Zachary said. But if that doesn’t happen, if they went even by one vote in the House, I believe, you know, we’re in for another two years where Trump is the leader of the party, he’s the nominee. And it’s ugly as far as our ability to work together. So not just for my own party’s sake of having the House and the Senate. For my sake of wanting to get back to many of the bipartisan relationships that I’ve had over the years before Donald Trump, I hope that that’s the case.
ZK: Well, this is certainly true in a nonpartisan way that politics does not reward repeated loss. At the end of the day, whether you win or lose is the ultimate test of whether or not the message and the positions you have have traction. And that also is a good part of democracy, right? You are in the constant process of a referendum on whether or not your message and your views have political legitimacy, not moral legitimacy, just political legitimacy. From my vantage point, I think as long as we have that continued process, nothing is permanent, right? It is a system where change is inbred, inbuilt, and chronic, and that’s disorienting, and it can lead to really bad change, but it also can lead to the just weight part of change, meaning, you know, it’s bad now, it could be totally different in two years, totally different in two years, totally different in four years, and that’s a good thing, you know. That is an inherently positive thing. Anyway obviously we could have this conversation endlessly. I kinda hope there’s more of these conversations. I mean, it’s the easiest thing to frame these conversations in terms of, you know, Governor, tell me why the Republicans are right, and Congressman, tell me why the Republicans are wrong. That conversation is ubiquitous and familiar. I feel some of this conversation is less so. And for the sheer sake of collective balance, it would be a good thing if there were more of these conversations, in addition to some of the partisan ones of you’re right and I’m wrong. So you both have been inspirations to me, and I’m sure to others, given that a few people apparently have voted for both of you, and I hope you will continue to be. So thanks so much for joining What Could Go Right?
ES: Yeah. Governor, Emma, Zachary, thank you.
JC: Hey, it’s great seeing you guys. Thanks a lot.
EV: Thanks to you both.
ZK: Well, Emma, I love that conversation largely because it’s not one that I hear being had a lot. Even if it’s one that is actually going on a lot, it’s not one that we hear a lot. And it does beg the question, which I’m gonna ask you, but which both of us are therefore asking of everyone listening is, does that conversation, and some of the stuff we talked about before we were joined by the governor and the congressman. Does that conversation prove why these conversations aren’t had more? You know, there were no fireworks. It doesn’t lend itself to sound bite moments, even though there were some good stories told, or those muscles aren’t used enough and so it’s unfamiliar, but just as compelling even though it’s not nearly as much an evidence?
EV: I think that it might be quieter, but I think, I hope anyway, that despite its quietness, it can still be compelling in the sense that I wonder how many Democrats listening to this actually hear from the horse’s mouth or Republican, rather than what someone might have said through the media and vice versa, right? How many Republicans listening to this actually listen to what Democrats are saying and not through, you know, any kind of filter. So I hope that is quietly compelling.
ZK: And even more, not just as you said, listening, but not being ready to pounce, right? ‘Cause Everybody says something that somebody finds objectionable if you’re in adversarial positions. The question is are you kind of interested in listening, or are you interested in point scoring or gotcha-ing? And clearly, between social media and the rest, we’re all interested in the gotcha-ing and we’re not really interested in the dialogue. But in order for things to get done, obviously that dialogue needs to continue. That is a question I wanna leave all of us with, which is, is there room for that quiet? Is there room for that moment of stepping back? Obviously, we believe there is, but I think we all need to ask ourselves and look in the mirror and go, are we ready to make room for that? Do you value that? And there are a lot of people for whom the answer to that is no, the threat is too great.
EV: I think if Ted Cruz can offer a fist bump in the bathroom, we can [laugh] follow his lead.
ZK: Right. So we’re gonna end the episode with a fist bump in the bathroom.
EV: How could we not?
ZK: That is gonna be our paean to bipartisanship. Anyway, thank you all for listening to What Could Go Right? Please subscribe to the weekly newsletter, also, conveniently enough, called What Could Go Right? And we look forward to a season of these conversations and musings about what’s going on in the world, all united by the sensibility that we can create a future that we wanna live in and not the future that we increasingly seem convinced we’re going to live in. So thank you for your time and energy and ears and eyes for those of you watching this today. And thank you, Emma, for the conversation.
EV: Thank you, Zachary. What Could Go Right? Is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? Newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks to Amazon Music Podcast for the support of What Could Go Right? Our show is available on Amazon Music Podcast, whether you’re on the go with your phone or listening through the desktop app at your computer. Play more pods with Amazon Music Podcasts. Make sure to follow, subscribe, and listen to What Could Go Right? On your favorite podcast app of choice. Ours is Amazon Music, available on the app, your desktop browser, or even by asking your Amazon Smart Speaker to play What Could Go Right?
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